Review: A Perfectly Polite Bit of British History in The King’s Speech at Chicago Shakes

Downton Abbey, the acclaimed British drama series that ran for several seasons on PBS here in the States, returned this weekend. The story, this time on the big screen, brought in big audiences, grossing over $30 million for Focus Features, a record for the arthouse distributor and a number far greater than those who track these things expected. But anyone who fancies themselves even the slightest bit an Anglophile can tell you that the movie version of the beloved period piece was one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Fans turned out in droves to be transported back in time and revisit the fictional Crawley family. Elizabeth (Rebecca Night) assists her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) in an unconventional speech therapy exercise from Lionel Logue (James Frain). Photo by Liz Lauren. Perhaps it's a similar fan base Chicago Shakespeare Theatre hopes to tap into with the North American premiere of The King's Speech, a play that—at least on paper—is dramatic catnip for royal watchers and history buffs alike. The play, an adaptation of the film version released in 2010 (that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture), recounts the very real story of England's reluctant king, George VI, who, while struggling with a speech impediment, took the throne after his older brother abdicated to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. This, then, is the first problem with the play written by David Seidler (who also wrote the film version): even if you've not seen the movie version, you know exactly what's going to happen from the outset. It's up to everyone who's a part of the production, from the actors delivering lines to the below-the-line craftspeople shaping the show, to make an otherwise prim and predictable narrative one that exhilarates. Try as they might—and to be sure, both the production values and the performances are strong—it never quite happens. Directed with precision by Michael Wilson, the historically accurate storyline clips along at a comfortable pace, the single set piece—two far walls of a stately room that meet upstage—transitioning from location to location through projected images evoking a ballroom here, an office there (projections designed by Hana Kim). Harry Haddon-Paton stars as Bertie, the future king, who embarrasses himself and the royal family during a stilted speech he delivers in the play's opening scenes. As the monarch's second-born son, his stutter has only ever been a family joke, something to rib him for in private; older brother (and general cad about town) David (the future Edward VIII, played by Jeff Parker) is set to inherit the throne, after all. But after George V's death and with a budding scandal around David and Mrs. Simpson, Bertie's more likely than ever to be in the spotlight, and something must be done about that stutter. Rebecca Night and Harry Hadden-Paton. Photo by Liz Lauren. And so, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Night) enlists the help of a would-be actor turned "speech specialist," Lionel Logue (James Frain), to work with Bertie and train away the tics and hiccups that keep him from delivering moving, meaningful speeches to the people. Logue, an Australian who moved to "Mother England" to become an actor, has his own troubles, including a wife (Elizabeth Ledo) eager to return home where she's not made fun of for her odd accent (Mr. Logue has long since trained himself to sound more British than Australian). With an unearned familiarity and more than a few unorthodox exercises, Logue begins to earn Bertie's trust and prove to him that the stutter is surmountable. By the end of the second act, King Edward VIII has abdicated for the sake of love and the newly anointed King George VI must make his first real speech as monarch. It's a moment that should be gripping, one that has a rapt audience cheering for the underdog, a man who's conquered his demons and grown leaps and bounds since we first met him. Instead, like the rest of the play, it's...fine. Hadden-Paton, best known for a role in (of all things) "Downton Abbey," plays Bertie as a posh, privileged do-gooder, someone who aims to please even when his short temper gets the best of him. He's impossible to dislike, and that's probably as it should be; Seidler and company aren't necessarily in the business of drama for drama's sake. As presented on stage, however, there isn't enough drama in the proceedings to make any of it terribly intriguing; in fact, moments of banter between the likes of Winston Churchill (Kevin Gudahl) and Archbishop Cosmo Lang (Alan Mandell) are just dull. Ultimately, The King's Speech (presented at just over two hours in two acts and an intermission) is about as British as it gets on stage; every cue hits, every line lands just as it should. Each actor (the lot of them white, the majority of them men) does their duty to Queen and country, as it were, their performances neat and respectable. It's all politely entertaining and entirely non-threatening, the "stiff upper lip" of an evening at the theater. The King's Speech continues through October 20 in the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $50-$90 for performances Tuesday-Sunday.

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Lisa Trifone