If you are disposed to think about the Duchess of Windsor, you might think about the abdication, those years in exile in France and the Queen Mum’s froideur towards her.
Then again you might be of a mind to muse on her supposed oral dexterity and question those allegations given her propensity for sporting pearl necklaces.
But then doubting different versions of events is key to the tale presented by playwright Nicholas Wright.
Despite being set in the Duchess’ Parisian home don’t arrive at the Hampstead Theatre for The Last of the Duchess expecting to see much of her. The last of the Duchess we get to see is about 5 minutes into Act 1. You’ll probably see more Wallis (though no longer Simpsons) on your average high street.
Although set in 1980 we only see a youthful Duchess in an early fantasy sequence. Phil was hoping the actress (Helen Bradbury) playing her had disappeared to apply ageing prosthetics and thus appear later in some sort of Miss Haversham-style Gothic finale. He’s twisted like that.
This is about those who surrounded her or sought to write about her: her French Lawyer Maître Suzanne Blum (Sheila Hancock) whose previous clients included Disney, Chaplin, Cocteau, Stravinsky, Rita Hayworth and now holds power of attorney for the Duchess, sparring in the other corner is the author Lady Caroline Blackwood (Anna Chancellor, great-great-granddaughter of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith) who was once married to Lucien Freud (amongst others). Then there’s Mitford girl Lady Diana Mosley (Angela Thorne) and Blum’s assistant the historian and biographer Michael Bloch (John Heffernan). Imagine the name-dropping the Whingers could do with that lot.
But then snobbery wafts its aristocratic nose rather often in the Duchess’ Bois de Boulogne house. Hear how Thorne’s Mosley pronounces “nostril” as “gnaw-stril”, her vowels are so rounded they’d need little plumping to assist sitting the Duchess upright in her bed. And Mosley claims, rather unconvincingly, not to hate Jews. How those two must have got along, you’d think the bed-ridden Duchess would brush off her indisposition and receive her in a trice.
Blackwood is attempting to write a piece about the Duchess for the Sunday Times Magazine but has to go through the formidable Blum who keeps the ailing Duchess from sight and may be pilfering her jewels. With little believable information for her article Blackwood sees Blum as an interesting subject herself and pandering to her ego manges to get the evasive lawyer to agree.
And fascinating and entertaining it all proves to be. Fusing drama, comedy and mystery into an agreeably economical 2 hours (the interval occurs after a mere 37 minutes). This was the first preview; plenty of time to ditch the break completely.
The extremely elderly and elegant French woman seated next to Phil pronounced Hancock’s French as “very good”. Blum’s sinister ruthlessness is portrayed to chilling effect; Hancock is compelling and not far removed from Mrs Danvers. No wonder Blackwood knocks back so much booze in her cat-and-mouse games with her. One look at her crisp pleats or those eyebrows would have anyone reaching for the spirits.
Heffernan’s Bloch flits about the stage quite hilariously, Thorne’s single scene leaves you wanting more of her and the ever-reliable Chancellor displays convincing vodka-marinated guile.
The Wright/Richard Eyre (directing) combo have become a bit of a dream team with their baby bios (Vincent in Brixton, The Reporter) in TLOTD they keep the tensions and intrigues bubbling nicely. A few years ago (and with a cast like this, particularly les femmes d’un certain age) this would have easily earned a West End transfer. Much as the Whingers wish The Pitman Painters a healthy run it would be rather jolly to see it installed at the Duchess Theatre.
Although based on true events, how close to what actually happened is part of the point. Even the set’s (Anthony Ward) trompe l’oeil painted gauzes cleverly echo the theme that things may not necessarily be what they seem.
But as ever the usual rules apply; this too is just a personal appraisal of the events witnessed. You needn’t trust a word of it.