REVIEW: Queen Anne (Theatre Royal Haymarket) ★★
Historical dramas continue to be popular, both in literature, on stage and on screen. The acclaim of Shakespeare In Love and Nell Gwynn has given rise to several historical comedies that combine music and dance to rapturous applause and frivolity.
Unfortunately, Queen Anne does not live up to expectations. Although it is clearly not a comedy, it tries too hard to include humour, which sadly results in awkward silences and forced, embarrassed laughter. Bawdy songs descend into pantomime and the contrast between these moments and the main play – to all intents and purposes a serious drama – is just extreme.
Queen Anne is one of the lesser-known monarchs, despite being one of few women to reign in this country. Her story is both fascinating and sad. She lived and reigned in the forgotten times, between everyone’s favourite Tudor and Victorian periods. Glossed over in schools and ignored by Hollywood, writer Helen Edmundson is right to bring her to us.
The show has so much potential, yet the script is dull and the cast lack enthusiasm. Overlooking the missed lines and unfortunate mishaps, even the poster looks amateur and some of the actors spend periods facing away from the audience, talking intimately to each other and the back of the stage. I’ve seen more polished school productions.
Emma Cunniffe does show some moments of genius. Her characterisation of Queen Anne is good and she is believable as the shy, childless monarch. Her vulnerability is clear and she visibly retreats into a shell when she is being bullied by Sarah Churchill (Romola Garai). Garai is less comfortable on stage than screen, but there are times when she reminds us that she is a great actress.
Beth Park shines as chambermaid Abigail Hill, who is just as ambitious as Churchill and James Garnon is excellent as Harley, the Speaker of the Commons. While several famous characters appear in the play (Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift), their presence is barely noticed, despite politics threatening to overshadow the entire play.
Yet for all its faults, Queen Anne does allow us to consider female ambition and relationships in a time where men dominated. Both Churchill and Hill use the Queen for their own gains, but how deep did their affection for her really run? And was Queen Anne really as vulnerable and shy as is believed?
This play features three very strong female characters, which is still a rare thing. With equality a key issue in the arts, it is important that lesser-known stories that invite diversity are brought into the public eye. And for that, Edmundsen is to be commended.
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes