"a mini-masterclass"
-Evening Standard-

"throws up uncanny modern parallels"
-The Daily Telegraph-

"an intriguing proposition"

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"Helps us appreciate the lessons we still need to learn"

Critic Rating

10 July 2017, Theatre Royal Haymarket
Guest Reviewer Guest Reviewer
The musical Hamilton ends with the question ‘who lives, who dies, who tells your story’, a sentiment that seems apt for the historical legacy of Queen Anne. For centuries, her reputation was shaped by a cut-throat memoir from childhood friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and the severely unflattering treatment meted out to her by the gentlemen of the press. But Anne was a monarch who presided over England’s timely withdrawal from the War of the Spanish Succession and successful implementation of the Act of Union between England and Scotland.

Historians have now slowly begun to reassess her neglected role and with the play Queen Anne, writer Helen Edmundson does much to further illuminate a period of history about which many of us know little. The line of succession for the House of Stuart was troubled by a lack of children and so Anne found herself queen in early eighteenth century after the reigns of her uncle Charles II and sister Mary II (with her husband William). And at a time of such political unrest and uncertainty, there were many vying to exert their influence over a queen who they thought they could control.

Chief among those is social climber extraordinaire Sarah Churchill, determined to convert her personal relationship with Anne into one of real power. And it is this struggle that Edmundson’s play details so beautifully. Romola Garai (stepping into the role created by Natasha McElhone at the RSC) is perfect casting as the ferociously ambitious Churchill, unashamedly trying to bend Anne to her own political viewpoints for her own personal gain. And Emma Cunniffe’s Anne is an equally gloriously performed part – at first a woman unsure of how to deal with the insistent forces in her life, but slowly growing into the regal stature of a queen who, finally, truly knows her own mind.

Natalie Abrahami’s production captures the complexities of this relationship with real skill and painful intimacy. Through moments of genuine closeness, of shared grief, of finally overstepped marks, this is a supremely nuanced look at the ways women were forced to negotiate and deal with being in positions of power. You also see these issues in the treatment of Anne as a public figure. Satirical songs with real bite are scattered throughout and have a horribly recognisable focus on judging a woman for the way she looks, regardless of the extreme ill-health she suffered and her 17 pregnancies, none of which produced a surviving heir.

Perhaps aware of our historical ignorance, Abrahami wisely keeps the production stripped back. The wood-panelled simplicity of Hannah Clark’s design encourages real pace to the action and also allows the gaudiness of the wigs and costumes to flourish. And a series of excellent supporting performances fleshes out the wider world well – Hywel Morgan’s charming Prince George, James Garnon’s charismatic Robert Harley, Beth Park’s slow-rising Abigail Hill, and particularly Chu Omambala’s striking John Churchill. A refreshing take on a history play that both successfully educates us about the past and helps us appreciate the lessons we still need to learn in the present.

Reviewed by Ian Foster.

Fiona Mountford
The ebbs and flows of Anne’s fortunes are compellingly drawn, as the Whigs and Tories embark on a not-so-covert campaign to gain her ear, her purse and her preferment, against a backdrop of European unrest. That fine actress Cunniffe traces Anne’s gradual unfurling with great delicacy; whereas Anne’s reedy, needy voice may continue to waver, her resolve increasingly does not, even if it means facing down the formidable Marlborough power couple.
Dominic Cavendish
Yet even if the evening isn’t quite the hot ticket that, say, The Ferryman is – nor matches the Restoration-era ebullience of Jessica Swale’s recent Nell Gwynn, albeit that it features entertainingly bawdy rounds of scurrilous, satirical song – it still fascinates.
Holly Williams
But I wished it would dig further into the personal – give us a greater sense of their past, their relationship – and leave off the politics a bit. There's an awful lot of little-known history stuffed into Queen Anne, which begins in 1702; layers and layers of Tory and Whig rivalry, Catholic and Protestant struggles, wars between Britain and its European allies against France and Spain, all puffing out like a petticoat – and hampering the play's movement.
Mark Shenton
This is a portrait of female friendship and female agency, and a rare showing of women power on the London stage. Not only is the play written and directed by women, it also stars two fine actresses, and is also designed, choreographed and features musical direction by women. This shouldn't be so unusual that it is even worth remarking upon in 2017; that it still is demonstrates just how much of a challenge strong women have had, not just in the early 18th century when this play is set, but even today in the early 21st.
Natasha Tripney
As Anne, Emma Cunniffe gives a performance of tenderness and vulnerability. She’s a pitiable figure at first, hobbled by gout and mouse-like in her manner, almost unbearably nervous when confronted by the hot-tempered king. But Cunniffe presents us with a woman slowly growing in fortitude; it is a delicate and sympathetic portrait.