Lena Farugia
Finborough Theatre

Production photo

When Wallis Simpson married the newly created Duke of Windsor six months after his abdication as Edward VIII she was denied the right to be addressed as Her Royal Highness, hence the title of this debut play by an American-born, South African-based writer which has already been seen there as We and Them. It presents us with a frail and ailing Duchess, besieged by paparazzi at the villa in the Bois de Boulogne which the Paris municipality provided for the Windsors. An intended visit from her sister-in-law Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, which the Duchess's staff cancelled because of Wallis's mental frailty, dates the action to 1976, four years after Edward's death and four years before the Duchess lost her power of speech.

Here, isolated and acerbic about her royal relations and attended by a butler who has a physical resemblance to her last late husband, she sometimes confuses memories with the present moment, reliving events from her relationship with the Prince of Wales.

The story of the royal romance and its aftermath has already been the subject of films and television dramas as well as being put on stage. This rather lightweight piece adds nothing new to the story and makes no attempt to explore either the difficulties of their lives as celebrities with nothing to do or their often alleged support for fascism. Nor is this a particularly dramatic work, though it packs in a lot of information. We glimpse brief moments only: as when Wallis tries to dissuade David (as he was known privately) from abdicating, ready to continue as his mistress rather than his wife, a scene which surely has much more potential.

Farugia may not have provided dramatic action but she has written a play of great theatricality that provides a vehicle for splendid performances from both Nicola McAuliffe as Wallis and Patrick Ryecart providing subtle support as butler Douglas, morphing into the Duke and back again to match her thoughts. These are performances that make this rather superficial piece worth seeing - along with the contrived punning and bitterly camp humour with which Wallis talks about the Royals, especially 'the Scottish cook' (the Queen Mother),. Wallis is a woman who drinks mineral water from a silver tankard, who broke her hip teaching her maid to do the Charleston, who now worries continually about the size of her grave plot at Windsor, thinks thieves has taken her jewellery or stolen her letters, who sees mother-in-law as an anagram of hitlerwoman, tells us that Kaiser Wilhelm commenting on his cousin's change of family name declared he was going to see Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and who, in a nice joke against herself, quotes one commentator describing her husband as 'starting off as Admiral of the Fleet and ending as third mate of an American tramp.' McAuliffe gives us a woman who knew she was not beautiful and sought other ways to make sure that she got attention and attracted admirers, while at the same time capturing the bewilderment of someone beginning the slide into senility.

Peter Cregeen keeps his production moving easily between past and present, aided by changes in James Smith's lighting and with three elegantly curtained windows Alex Marker has evoked the smart ambience of the Villa Windsor. The transitions from Butler to 'David' figure are so nicely blurred that the butler is allowed theatrically necessary liberties that his station might not have been permitted, while status is as clearly signalled by the discreet way in which he lifts her as by Wallis's practised curtseys. This would not be ideal entertainment for an ardent royalist but it will make an enjoyable diversion for anyone who sees the funny side to Buckingham Palace.

Until 14th March

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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