Review – The Last of the Duchess, Hampstead Theatre

Monday 24 October 2011

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.



11 Responses to “Review – The Last of the Duchess, Hampstead Theatre”

  1. Ged Says:

    This play split “our jury” a bit. I found the play itself very dull – the evening was held together by the excellent performances – especially Hancock and Chancellor. Daisy liked the play as well as the performances.

    We both thought the butler’s French accent was a complete joke and found Angela Thorne predictably one-dimensional – she only plays the one character ever.

    Straight through without a break would have been a mistake, I think. You actually want the audience to chat about whether Blum is mad, bad or just a typical French lawyer.

    Well above the usual Hampstead standard these days – we consider “stayed for the second half” to be a win there since the move from the ever-reliable prefab to the losing-lottery-ticket that seems to be the norm for productions at the posh new theatre.

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      Interesting: you detect no difference in the Hsmpstead’s strike rate over the past year and a bit, since Ed Hall took over?

      • Ged Says:

        To be fair, we did not go to the theatre much in the past 12 months or so due to various personal circumstances.

        On our only other visit in the past year, Daisy was taken ill about 10 minutes in to Ecstasy – not really Mike Leigh, Ed Hall or Hampstead’s fault.

        The Anthony Clark era was an artistic disaster IMHO.

        We’re back in the game again now, theatre-going-wise and Daisy hopes to make it all the way through the new Mike Leigh on Boxing Day!

      • betsy Says:

        not much difference, frankly. a touch better, perhaps. upstairs has been grim. loyalty? enlightenment? they weren’t great drama.. the rsc season wasn’t so wonderful either, though that was the rsc’s fault…this one is well enough produced, and anna chancellor is fun, but nothing really happens.

        downstairs has been a bit better. di viv and rose was pretty good. morgan lloyd malcom’s play wasn’t too bad either. the stock da’wa and .45 were awful, though…

  2. raphael Says:

    Historical footnote on ‘oral dexterity’: you are confusing Wally with Marg of Arg- the lady sporting pearls who was snapped giving head to a ‘Headless Man’ was Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The pic became evidence in her divorce case.

  3. max Says:

    Will this play do a Mrs Klein and transfer? Or will we have forgotten about it by Christmas? And do you think the answer depends on the reviews or on Daily Telegraph word of mouth?

  4. max Says:

    It’s really rather terrific, even though the first act is so short it’s a joke (the shape of the whole thing is in three parts, and the second act – parts two and three – is a lot longer).

    Billington moans in the Guardian that there’s not enough mention of Diana Mosley’s fascism. Such a Billington-boring-1970s-leftie thing to say. Reality and fakery, covering up and yet almost wanting to be uncovered: that’s what I got from it. And despite the slightest of the overall thing, I have never seen Sheila Hancock (whom I normally find common) do anything as good as this, ever.

  5. betsy Says:

    sure, reality and fakery. but nothing happens. blackwood never gets to meet wallis. a few accusations are made, but never proved. what does it actually tell us about reality and fakery? nothing, really…

  6. Julie Hope Says:

    ‘what does it actually tell us about reality and fakery’?

    I thought, quite a lot. That everyone’s idea of reality is different – Diana Moseley’s comment in the play about liking ‘individual Jews’ is her idea of reality, if not ours. Maitre Blum’s comments that the Windsors were only concerned with the poor; that the Duchess never drank; and that the Duke had the ‘best legal mind of his generation’ are clearly not meant to persuade anyone that they are true – she is simply offering a particuar reality.

    I ended up enjoying this, but if I’d been with a friend, and they had suggested hitting the gin, rahter than going in for the second half, I’d have been at the bar like a shot. Which would have been a pity, as the second half was a huge improvement on the first. I loved Angela Thorne, and revelled in those rounded vowels. I liked Sheila Hancock, but thought that Anna Chancellor held the whole thing together as the rather unlikeable Caroline.

    The ‘dream’ sequence at the beginning, with a stunning Wallis in 1930s dress confused quite a few of the ladies sitting behind me – someone needs to walk across the stage with a large placard proclaiming ‘this is a dream’. Or more people will have to listen to the confused twitterings about when the play was set. ‘Oh, but Enid, it must have been set in the 30s, as Wallis was young!’.

    Oh dear.

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