Review: ‘The King’s Speech’

Rebecca Night as Elizabeth assists Harry Hadden-Paton as her husband Bertie in an unconventional speech therapy exercise from James Fain (right) as Lionel Logue in “The King’s Speech.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

RECOMMENDED

Where: The Yard at
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Oct. 20
Tickets: $50-$90
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Whenever Harry Hadden-Paton and James Frain appear on stage together in the North American premiere of David Seidler’s “The King’s Speech” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, sparks fly.

That’s the main reason to see the play, which Seidler apparently penned before adapting it for the celebrated, Academy Award-winning 2010 film starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

Hadden-Paton (Bertie Pelham in “Downton Abbey”) portrays Prince Albert, Duke of York – “Bertie” to his family—the second son of King George V, who never expects to rule and whose pronounced stammer makes public speaking torture. But when his older brother, David, Prince of Wales and then King Edward VIII, refuses to give up the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson and is forced to abdicate, Albert has no choice and becomes King George VI. He also has to overcome his disability, partly because the wireless is an important form of communication and he will need to inspire a nation preparing for World War II.

If you remember the movie, that’s where Lionel Logue, played by Frain, comes in. Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, Duchess of York (Rebecca Night, Hadden-Paton’s real-life wife), posing as a Mrs. Johnson, initially seeks him out in Harley Street, and the failed Australian actor turned speech therapist agrees to help. The centerpiece of the historical drama is the on again-off again, often contentious developing friendship between the two men, who have totally different temperaments.

Hadden-Paton’s Bertie is the epitome of royal privilege and propriety paired with insecurity and vulnerability. We can sense how a humiliating childhood contributes to his chronic speech impediment  and lack of self-confidence, and the way his suppressed frustration builds to explosions of anger is palpable. So is his difficulty getting the words out when he tries to make a speech on radio. He’s so viscerally painful to watch, we want to let him off the hook.

Frain’s Lionel never lets Bertie off hook, however, He’s insistent and arrogant, with a lack of deference Bertie finds annoying but an honesty the king-to-be comes to depend on. Closer to Bertie’s contemporary in age than Rush in the film, Frain also occasionally drops the cocky mask, letting us see the man’s deep disappointment not being able to make it as an actor in England.

The role of Lionel’s wife, Myrtle, which is larger than in the movie, contributes to his complexity. Elizabeth Ledo makes her strong and supportive, but at the same time, she desperately wants to go home to Australia, and he’s torn between being a loving husband and doing the job he’s taken on, even when he’s dismissed several times.

Knight’s rock-solid Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mum (mother of the current Queen Elizabeth II) rounds out the main quartet. Always proper and perfectly controlled, she comes across as Bertie’s bulwark against the world with a steely determination and dry sense of humor. She also provides a vivid contrast to Tiffany Scott’s brief appearances as the spoiled, manipulative Wallis Simpson.

Under Michael Wilson’s direction, Mrs. Simpson and the other characters seem to move around mostly in the background almost as if they are in a different play than Bertie, Lionel, and their wives.  King George V (John Judd) is around just long enough to get things off to an expository start. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (David Lively) puts in an appearance or two. House of Commons MP Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) and Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang (Alan Mandell) pop up now and again to discuss the current political and social situation, and Lang suggests a curious power play. David (Jeff Parker) and Wallis waltz by (literally), dropping kind words about the Nazis to Churchill’s dismay.

Many of the early scenes in particular are choppy and confusing enough to be inferior to the film, and the finale, though it’s basically the same, comes across here as anticlimactic. Wilson’s staging may be part of the problem, despite Kevin Depinet’s intriguing scenic design, Howell Binkley’s lighting, and David C. Woolard’s fine costumes. Hana Kim’s projection design is at times hard to fathom.

“The King’s Speech” is slated to tour other cities after its Chicago run. As long as Hadden-Paton and Frain head the cast, it should be a hit. Their connection is obvious, but the rest of the show doesn’t come together as well.