WhatsOnStage Logo

Michael Coveney: Churchill changes hands at critical juncture

WhatsOnStage logo

Quite a few people have asked me recently what I thought of The Audience and The Book of Mormon and don't understand the explanation of my ignorance as due to the fact that neither show has yet opened.

Everyone of course wants to see Helen Mirren as the Queen, and you would have to have been holidaying in Siberia, or Filey, to have missed the avalanche of interviews with the South Park authors of Mormon; in the latter case, you could have been forgiven, too, for thinking that BBC arts correspondent "zany" Will Gompertz's hard sell on the BBC News constituted a "review" rather than a "story."

Mormon, anyway, is "out there" as it's been such a noisy hit on Broadway for so long and, in a sense, The Audience is already a known quantity through the film, The Queen, also starring Mirren, which Audience author Peter Morgan wrote six years ago.

But while the reviews for The Audience will appear next Wednesday, those for Mormon are embargoed until the penultimate Friday of March following a series of Press previews starting three weeks on Saturday. I've no idea who the actors are in Mormon, but we all now know that Edward Fox is playing Churchill in The Audience, following the withdrawal of 87 year-old Robert Hardy, who's had a fall and injured his ribs. 

This will be a great disappointment to Hardy fans who might have seen him play Churchill seven times in his long and illustrious career, most notably in eight episodes of The Wilderness Years in 1981; that portrait of Churchill between the wars, reclaiming his “lost” career before going to the Admiralty in 1939, remains a highlight of television acting down the years – vigorous, peppery, loveable and bullish, but not remotely an “impersonation.” 

Hardy first recycled Churchill in a feeble musical, Winnie, at the Victoria Palace in 1988, intoning highlights from the great speeches as part of a war-time cabaret in bombed-out Potsdam to launch the 1945 general election campaign.

His other Churchills included an appearance in the television abdication drama, The Woman He Loved (1988) and the mini-series War and Remembrance (also 1988) starring Robert Mitchum as a Second World War naval officer. He played Churchill for the last time in French, in Paris, in a play called Celui qui a dit Non (1999) about, unsurprisingly, General de Gaulle.

With Daniel Day-Lewis winning his third Oscar for his protrayal of Abraham Lincoln, it's clear that actors now have to play famous people from history in order to find true favour and appreciation. But even Nicole Kidman, she who can do no wrong in my book, is asking for trouble, I reckon, by taking on Grace Kelly in her upcoming new movie.

Safer, perhaps, to stick with lesser known "real" people, such as the Liddell family in Peter and Alice, opening soon at the Noel Coward (where queues have been forming all week along St Martin's Lane to catch the last performances of Privates on Parade), or Edward Lear, soon to be "impersonated" by that lovely actor Edward Petherbridge in My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic.

Critics are real people, too, though they are rarely played on the stage, with the exception of Alexander Woollcott (who said that all the things he really liked to do were either illegal, immoral or fattening) in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Kenneth Tynan, brilliantly "materialised" on two separate occasions by Corin Redgrave and Peter Eyre.

Even if people don't much like critics, at least critics sometimes like each other, though rarely to the extent of co-habiting and propagation. So it's delightful news that Claire Allfree of Metro and John Nathan of The Jewish Chronicle are expecting a little baby boo-hoo merchant together. John inherited his job from his dad, David Nathan, so perhaps we can at least be sure that the job of theatre critic on the JC is now safe for another generation...


Tagged in this Story