THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS
by Nicholas Wright based on the book by Caroline Blackwood.
Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue Swiss Cottage NW3 3EU To 26 November 2011.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm Sat 3pm.
Audio-described 19 Nov 3pm (+ Touch Tour 1.30pm).
Captioned/Post-show Discussion 22 Nov.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 29 October.
Just what’s needed in austerity Britain – a play about royal and titled cast-offs.
This is a play stiff with class. Inflexibly starchy, it concerns an aristocratic journalist/novelist and serial vodka-drinker (upon whose book the play is based) attempting to interview one of history’s offcuts, Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated in 1936.
Living in poverty after Edward’s death the Duchess of Windsor became a sad relict, an object of snobbish interest, Sunday supplement fodder in her declining years.
As she is in Nicholas Wright’s well-crafted, if at times soporific, play, where she’s seen only as a fantasy-figure stoking-up on vodka (which helped this notably slim woman save on the calories) and suggested in the moment when her French lawyer, Maitre Suzanne Blum, stands at the fireplace in a traditional Duchess pose.
It’s as if she saw herself as the Duchess, and stories abounded about her keeping Simpson a prisoner upstairs, maintaining her reputation while appropriating her valuable possessions. But even Blum’s formidable personality and threats to sue can’t keep the Duchess’s decline secret in the days of the telephoto lens.
Blackwood doesn’t get to the Duchess. But the forbidding Blum is flattered by the idea of a feature on herself and a photo-shoot by another royal cast-off, Lord Snowdon. That takes place offstage. For this play’s core is the battle between two strong-willed, determined women.
As Blum, Sheila Hancock has a force of personality disproportionate to her compact physical presence, which seems all the less after changing into black, amidst the high, cold walls of Anthony Ward’s set. Hancock can dismiss or encourage with the minute turn of a cadence, or the swiftest shift of facial expression. In contrast, Anna Chancellor’s Blackwood is all space-filling and fuss, whether swigging the vodka she whisks from her bag or swathing a hand through her hair.
Both are expert performances, as is Angela Thorne’s as their neighbour Diana Mosley and John Heffernan as the mild-mannered young lawyer, hors de combat between the conflicting female temperaments.
Who are all dead now. Of the lot, it’s Blackwood herself whose life and nature seems most interesting. For the rest, this elegant, formal world is trop passé
Caroline Blackwood: Anna Chancellor.
Duchess of Windsor/Tessa: Helen Bradbury.
Michael Bloch: John Heffernan.
Maître Suzanne Blum: Sheila Hancock.
Georges: Conrad Asquith.
Ofelia: Jasmina Daniel.
Lady Mosley: Angela Thorne.
Director: Richard Eyre.
Designer: Anthony Ward.
Lighting: Peter Mumford.
Sound: John Leonard.
Assistant director: Oli Rose.