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Queen Anne at Swan Theatre - Review

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New RSC Political Drama In Same Vein As Wolf Hall
Following on from Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies comes a new political drama from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) set in the historic royal era of Queen Anne.

Queen Anne, Swan Theatre, RSC, Emma Cunniffe, Natascha McElhone, Helen Edmundson
Emma Cunniffe gives a magnificent performance in the title role of Queen Anne. Photo Manuel Harlan

Written by Helen Edmundson's, who was behind The Heresy of Love in 2012, Queen Anne follows Princess Anne as she becomes queen and the manipulative figures around her vying for power - in particular, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.

Anne's love for Sarah, their intensely personal relationship and how Sarah abuses this is the focus of the riveting play at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon.

Weaved in to the plot is the clever inclusion of famous satirists of the time, including Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, and their part in shaping public opinion. This adds a welcome light-hearted dimension to the production with songs and rude parodies on the court's dealings.

In the early parts of the play, Queen Anne is ridiculed as a pantomime dame character unable to give birth to a child but delivering a fart instead. Later, she's a puppet with the Duchess of Marlborough and her cronies pulling her strings. Tom Turner shines in these scenes as sceptical journalist Swift.

Queen Anne, Swan Theatre, RSC, Emma Cunniffe, Natascha McElhone, Helen Edmundson
Satirists add an interesting dimension to the play in the RSC's Queen Anne. Photo Manuel Harlan

None shine as bright, however, as Emma Cunniffe in the title role. You may remember the actress from the 1990s TV series The Lakes with John Simm. She recently performed for the RSC as Mrs Darling in Wendy & Peter Pan two years ago, but is thankfully given this far more meatier role as Queen Anne.

She is outstanding as vulnerable, ill Anne with trembling hands and a magnificent presence on stage. Her understated, natural performance makes Natascha McElhone's Sarah Churchill seem unsubtle and over-acted in comparison.

Queen Anne, Swan Theatre, RSC, Emma Cunniffe, Natascha McElhone, Helen Edmundson
Emma Cunniffe and Natasha McElhone star in Queen Anne. Photo Manuel Harlan.

McElhone, a familiar face from films including The Truman Show and Solaris, is well-suited to the role of beautiful, conniving, icy enchantress Sarah, who has more than just the queen's ear.

She plays the cool, calm, considered side of Sarah well but it's when her plans start to unravel that McElhone's performance lacks the passion of a woman who is falling apart at the seams.

Queen Anne, Swan Theatre, RSC, Emma Cunniffe, Natascha McElhone, Helen Edmundson
Natasha McElhone plays the manipulative Sarah Churchill in Queen Anne for the RSC. Photo Manuel Harlan

Set in the early 1700s, Queen Anne inherits an England that is at war. With a weak husband and plagued by illness herself, plus an unrequited obsession with her friend Sarah, she is a prime target for those with designs on power.

Into the fray is thrown kindly, honourable servant Abigail Hill (an impressive Beth Park) whose relationship with Leader of the Commons Robert Harley shapes the future. In the same vein as Wolf Hall, this drama throws the spotlight on the inner workings of the halls of power when friendships are manipulated and betrayal leads to blackmail and deceit.

Natalie Abrahami directs and steps up the pace after the interval when we see a more confident, determined Anne showing her full potential to realise where her true allegiances lie.

It's a well-crafted play that benefits from a standout lead performance and will be of particular interest to those who enjoyed Wolf Hall.

Rating: 7/10

Queen Anne
Swan Theatre
4 Dec 2015 - 23 Jan 2016
Running time: 2hrs 55 mins including a 20 mins interval

Tickets cost from 5 from the RSC website.

Cast List
Emma Cunniffe (Queen Anne)
Natascha McElhone (Sarah Churchill)
Beth Park (Abigail Hill)
Richard Hope (Sidney Godolphin)
Jonathan Broadbent (Robert Harley)
Tom Turner (Jonathan Swift)
Robert Cavanah (John Churchill)
Jonathan Christie(Arthur Maynwearing)
Daniel Easton (Colonel Masham)
Michael Fenton Stevens (Dr John Radcliffe)
Hywel Morgan (Prince George of Denmark)
Carl Prekopp (Defoe/William III)
Daisy Ashford (Lady Clarendon)
Jenny Rainsford (Jezebel/Lady-in-Waiting)
Elliott Ross (Jack Churchill)
Anna Tierney (Lady Somerset)
Ragevan Vasan (Groom).
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Why? Political Historical Drama Starring Emma Cunniffe
When: Until January 23, 2016
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From 5
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