A Princess Undone

Richard Stirling
Evergreen Theatrical Productions Ltd
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

It’s not easy being a princess states Stephanie Beecham’s Princess Margaret brandishing a cushion embroidered with the words. It cannot be easy either portraying a controversial member of the Royal Family when many of that family are still around and mentioned frequently in the dialogue.

Born into world where she had no particular role, and with fewer options to create one at that time, Princess Margaret seemingly threw herself into enjoyment and often outrageous behaviour which, of course, caught the attention of the press. The “Diana of her day”, one would assume an empathy between the two, but it seems not by the scathing comments aimed in that direction, although a rather sorrowful sympathy is expressed at the marriage break-up: “failure has nothing to do with a third party when the two main players don’t match up!”. Perhaps thoughts of her own divorce come to mind here.

Stirling shows us a princess with very conflicting emotions and moods, one who drinks too much and smokes frequently but is witty, engaging, still fun-loving, sometimes a bit crude, often autocratic, remembering her station in life (very funny when she adapts her voice to a mockingly royal greeting “have you come far?) but always fiercely loyal to her family and to the church.

The story centres on the episode when Margaret burned sackfuls of letters which were of a private nature and could be embarrassing to the family and here she has borrowed the Queen Mother’s butler to bring in the sacks to be sorted. The relationship between the two is interesting.

William Tallon (nicknamed “Backstairs Berty” referring to his dalliances with young men) has worked at the Palace from the age of fifteen and is well-versed in the etiquette required but seems to get away with behaviour which would not usually be tolerated. He admonishes the princess from time to time concerning her behaviour and the two indulge in singing and dancing to popular Cockney songs, but he still has to call her “ma’am”.

The arrival of a friend of the Lord Linley, the Princess’s son, is rather strange as he seems to have wandered in virtually unchallenged and tries to leave with a packet of the letters, but it does give Beacham’s Margaret a chance to display a very commendable twist.

As she reads the letters, remembering so many tragedies as well as the joys, Beacham, in an amazing performance, draws us into her mood and we can’t help feeling her sorrow interspersed with the joyful times, but it is the latest visitor that brings a mood of apprehension and tension.

This is Jason Merrells as the former gangster John Lindon, very well known to the princess although she has always denied his claim to have slept with her. There are more letters involved here which could be very embarrassing to her personally. Has he come to blackmail her, will she pay him or will he publish and be damned?

There are references throughout to many of the family, and also the princess’s love affairs as well as commenting on the break-up of her own marriage and the disparaging comment about her mother-in-law Lady Ross, “known as Tugboat Annie as she goes from peer to peer”, but the story ends with a Princess alone and lonely. So sad!

I found the production absolutely fascinating as, it seems, did the audience as they left animatedly discussing the play, but you can’t help wondering what the present Royals would think of it all.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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