You know when Les Enfants Terribles come up with a project it’s going to be something a little different; whether it’s inviting you down the rabbit hole for Alice’s Adventures Underground, or into the surreal world of Flies, there’s always a little twist to keep you on your toes. They’ve gone all-out with their brand new production, United Queendom, setting out an immersive exploration of the lives of Queen Caroline and George II’s mistress (and Lady of the Bedchamber) Henrietta Howard – and all in the luxurious environment of Kensington Palace after it has closed its doors to the public for the evening. This production was written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied & Anthony Spargo, and directed by Christa Harris.
Despite the fact that this period laid the foundations for the modern royal family, with the Hanover branch coming over from Germany when Queen Anne (the last of the Stuarts) died, and the United Kingdom as we know it (the Act of Union was in its infancy when George I ascended the throne and Robert Walpole became the first Prime Minister in 1721), the Georgians don’t seem to be a popular topic on the school history curriculum. So, unless you have a real enthusiasm for history, this period will probably be quite alien to many people.
In this kind of situation I tend to look to Horrible Histories for a bit of a primer…
And this is good for a brief overview of the four Georgian monarchs…
In United Queendom, the audience finds themselves in 1734 at the court of George II. It’s the King’s birthday and everyone’s invited! Well, that’s not strictly true… To start with it’s all fun and games, as the Necessary Woman greets the assembled crowd and the Lord Chamberlain shows everyone in to the drinks reception, where there’s a chance to mingle with all guests and get to know one another. Scandal is threatened when we overhear an argument upstairs, but it’s clear that the party will go on anyway. This is where they sort the wheat from the chaff – I found myself in the latter category, threatened with ejection from the palace as I was without the requisite golden envelope. I know my place.
While the more distinguished guests were whisked off into the party, the commonfolk have to rely on the generosity of staff and other guests to gain entrance into a salon that’s taking place that evening. After being whisked away upstairs, we are given the lowdown on Lady Henrietta’s rise to prominence by Lord Hervey and Miss Vane whilst also getting the chance to peruse the King’s Gallery – then the Countess of Hertford picks up the story, telling us a bit more about the relationship between Queen Caroline and her Lady of the Bedchamber. Later on we do eventually make it to the salon, as well as join back with the rest of the party to see how things stand between the King and his mistress; Henrietta Howard also gets the opportunity to talk frankly with the Queen, before making a big decision about her future.
Though there isn’t a big narrative to grapple with over the course of about 90 minutes, Les Enfants Terribles show once again how best to manage a promenade/immersive theatre experience. They have a clear (if basic) structure, so you know where you are going at all times – vital to keep on top of in an historic building like this – and they create a relaxed & fun atmosphere that puts you at ease, not making anyone too uncomfortable if they’re picked on for the odd little task. The fact that they’re able to perform in Kensington Palace means that they can throw in extra site-specific details, such as referring to particular artwork on the walls as we pass them, and it definitely does immerse you in a different world to your own.
Amongst the fun and frivolity of the party, the discussion between Queen Caroline (Miranda Heath) and Lady Henrietta (Yasmin Keita) is a definite highlight, as we begin by hearing it how a man (who was not in the room when it happened) imagined it would play out – before the two women break free and talk frankly with one another in a more realistic (albeit anachronistic) fashion. Flamboyant performances from Stephan Boyce and Lavinia Co-Op as Lord Hervey and King George II are also a treat, fitting in well with the extravagant and striking costumes, hair & make-up from Susan Kulkarni and Victoria Stride.
This is a terrific blend of history and theatricality, making the most of a stunning performance environment. Not only do you leave feeling thoroughly entertained, but you will definitely learn a thing or two about history along the way – it’s an absolute delight to be a part of.
My verdict? A wonderful blend of history and theatricality, with striking costumes and flamboyant performances – entertaining, educational & a real treat to behold.
United Queendom runs at Kensington Palace until 30 March 2020. Tickets are sold out.