Writer: Richard Stirling
Director: Jonny Kelly
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
When she died in 2002, Princess Margaret looked to have completed her slow journey towards becoming a footnote on the pages of British history. However, interest in the Queen’s younger sister has been rekindled by the Netflix series The Crown and now Richard Stirling’s new play takes a further look at what many remember as a sad and unfulfilled figure.
The time is 1993 and the Princess is divorced from “the campest man in Britain”. She has left a long list of alleged lovers in her wake, but the press has now turned its attention to the younger royals and she is yesterday’s news. She occupies her Kensington Palace apartment (sumptuously furnished in Norman Coates’ set design) with other royals as her near neighbours, comforted by a favourite cushion embroidered with the words “it’s not easy being a princess”, sipping Red Grouse and chain-smoking (“down to 10 a day”). She looks out onto the Palace courtyard waiting to see which boyfriend the “Golden Girl” (Diana) will be bringing home tonight.
With her mother and sister out of town, HRH has charged the Queen Mother’s dutiful but sarcastic aide, William (played by the writer himself), to raid his mistress’s drawers and bring to Margaret piles of papers that she believes relate to her personal scandals. The object is to burn them, which it seems actually happened. Perhaps less likely to be true is the arrival of a young interloper (Alexander Knox) seeking to get his hands on the papers, but his appearance lets us see that the Princess’s flirtatious disposition is still active even in her 60’s.
The insatiable appetite of the British public for tittle-tattle about royalty should ensure that Stirling’s gossipy play finds an audience. There is much name-dropping – the Kents complaining about the noise, Diana being ostracised for allowing her boys to dive-bomb Margaret in the Kensington Palace swimming pool and so on. A further reminder of Margaret’s show business links comes when John Bindon (Patrick Toomey) turns up. The press had reported that Bindon, an actor with underworld connections, had been a guest on the Princess’s Caribbean hideaway of Mustique several years earlier and he is now intent on blackmail.
Much of this would be very flimsy stuff indeed were it not for a superb central performance by Felicity Dean, regal and slutty almost in the same instant. This is a woman who remains defiantly arrogant, using bitchiness as a defence mechanism, so caught up in the role that she was born to play that she does not know who she truly is. The daughter of a King, she had been second in line for the throne for over a decade, but now the long downward spiral to insignificance is nearing its end and Dean’s Princess looks lonely and forlorn.
Jonny Kelly’s steady direction keeps us interested for 80 minutes (extended by a 20-minute interval), but the creakiness of Stirling’s plotting cannot be disguised and it feels likely that the play could have worked a great deal better if it had been structured as a monologue for the magnificent Dean to perform.
Runs until 17 March 2018 | Image: Contributed