After reading mixed reviews from theatre critics, I was really unsure of what to expect from this RSC West End transfer, but I have to say I was mildly surprised.
Having learnt little history at school, I arrived at the theatre with no previous knowledge of Queen Anne, so for me, this production was almost like a sneak peek into British history and the life of one of our past monarchs.
The show revolves almost entirely around the seemingly healthy relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe), and her close friend and confidant, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). However, the relationship is soon revealed to be riddled with bitterness, jealousy, with infrequent hints at something beyond platonic friendship.
Plagued by multiple health issues, Anne heavily relies on Sarah for moral support, not only in the lead up to her coronation but once she is Queen, too. The Duchess is headstrong, self-assured, and certainly knows how to pull Anne’s strings in order to influence her decisions.
When the Queen strikes up an unlikely friendship with her servant – also the Duchess’ cousin – Abigail Hill (Beth Park), Sarah gets a case of the green-eyed monster, and is soon spreading slanderous rumours insinuating that the pair are a little more than just friends.
Before your eyes, you see Anne grow from a sickly woman, reluctant to fulfil her duties as the British monarch, into a woman much surer of her own mind. Although never entirely independent, Anne becomes more confident in her ability to make decisions as she steps out of Sarah’s shadow.
Cunniffe portrays Queen Anne’s fragility to perfection; she stoops, shakes and shies away from responsibility – quite the opposite of Garai, who commandeers the stage and appears every inch the self-confident and manipulative figure that Sarah Churchill was.
Parodical songs performed by the wits at the Inns of Court offer a lighthearted (and rather crude) break between the more somber scenes shared by the two leading ladies.
All in all, this play succeeds in bringing a forgotten monarch to the forefront of people’s minds; the story is interesting and enjoyable, though perhaps not one of the biggest must-sees to hit the West End this year.
Approx. running time: 3 hours, including interval
Understudies: none that I’m aware of