Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne makes a convincing case that this neglected monarch deserves more attention and that the powerful Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who shared a tumultuous, intimate friendship with the queen, is worthy of a closer look too. For the most part, though, this new play, a transfer from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, describes rather than depicts: Queen Anne delivers an intriguing history lesson but never provides the captivating drama that the facts would seem to promise.

Romola Garai often delights as the self-centered, self-empowered Duchess, but her long-standing friendship with Anne, played sympathetically by Emma Cunniffe as a pious, panicky princess gingerly finding her footing, never quite feels real. We’re told over and over how much the women care for each other deep down, despite Sarah’s unashamedly open manipulation of her monarch, but Garai’s shows of grief at losing her status at court seem more about losing influence than losing a companion. Edmundson’s decision to leave the homoerotic tension between the two women deliberately vague may also contribute to the sense that we’re seeing a faint sketch instead of a vivid panorama.

Chu Omambala, as Churchill’s husband John, eventually Anne’s foremost military leader, nicely brings out the nuances of a soldier seeking to advance his career with the recognition that his wife may wield greater power than he ever can. In the much smaller role of Anne’s husband Prince George, Hywel Morgan offers a moving defence of his wife, while Beth Park stands out as the seemingly sweet but secretly crafty Abigail Hill, the Queen’s chambermaid who rises to become the Duchess’ greatest rival.  

Natalie Abrahami’s crisp staging helps to combat the text’s slow pace, but there are moments, perhaps unintentional, where Edmundson seems to slip into iambic meter, or even a rhyming couplet or two, that suddenly animate the largely prosaic language. In the scenes featuring some rowdy MPs and authors at the Inns of Court, a little bawdy song-and-dance satire goes a long way, but the live music, composed by Ben and Max Ringham and music directed by Candida Caldicot, mostly entertains. Hannah Clark’s period costumes, unsurprisingly, add plenty of colour and even whimsy.

Edmundson stuffs Queen Anne chock-full of history, much of it new and frequently fascinating, but digesting all that raw material takes time, and the play sometimes lurches under the weight of the exposition it necessitates. The rather modern sense of humour tends to feel out of place, bringing to mind the far more successful Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s Olivier Award-winning comedy that warmly, hilariously penetrated the court of Charles II, a few rulers ahead of Anne. That play compellingly suggested that its characters happened to history and not the other way round. By contrast, Queen Anne ends up placing its pair of protagonists at the mercy of a storm of facts and figures rather than allowing them to steer the ship themselves to clearer and more thrilling shores.

Queen Anne is playing at Theatre Royal Haymarket until September 30.

Photo: John Snelling