Writer: Desmond O’Connor
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
You couldn’t make it up. The idea that Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett once disguised Princess Diana and took her to a gay bar one night in the late 80s seems preposterous, but truth has always proved stranger than fiction. And what better venue to stage this story than in the actual place where this masquerade took place: the legendary gay bar, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
The Victorian pub probably has had a gay clientele since the Second World War, and, in a move to preserve the building from the development that is sweeping across most of riverside Vauxhall, it was listed in 2015 in recognition of its connection to LGBT+ history. It was here where Paul O’Grady’s alter ego Lily Savage cut her teeth.
Brought back to the Vauxhall Tavern in time for the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, this musical begins with a short history of the 1980s for those too young to remember the decade. This was the time of Thatcher, of raves, of cocaine and MDMA. After such an expansive prologue it’s a funny irony that this play starts with Freddie, Kenny and Di listlessly playing Trivial Pursuit, another 80s’ classic. Each of them is holed up for a reason; Freddie, played with conviction by Desmond O’Connor, is coming to terms with his recent HIV diagnosis, Kenny, an efficient Joe Morrow, is worried that his ex-wife’s autobiography will ‘out’ him, while Diana, excellently channelled by Carrie Marx, is taking refuge from the Royal Family and the paparazzi, both of which imprison her. What they need is a royal night out.
The short first-half of Royal Vauxhall proves that the best thing about going out is getting ready to go out with such songs as Making a Man out of Diana, which are performed with a pantomime relish. However, after the interval, the potential joyousness of Diana’s freedom to be herself for one night never materialises, and instead this feel-good musical becomes a tragicomedy with numbers such as Killing Me.
The RVT has always promoted an alternative gay scene with such nights as Duckie and Bar Wotever, and it’s a shame that this show isn’t edgier. Some jokes sail close to the wind, but any irreverence is rather undone with charm: even the song Don’t Fuck with Diana is a little too cosy. The busy cast makes sure that they make full use of the pub, often coming down to the dance floor where the audience sits on barstools, but we are always observers when, in such a perfect site-specific space, we could have become participants in such an extraordinary tale.
Because of its turn to tragedy, this show is surprisingly moving as it explores the lives of this trio after their escape to the RVT. Played in a venue that has always celebrated difference, this perusal of the afterlife feels misplaced. It would have been better to leave Freddie, Kenny and Diana blissed-out on the dance floor.
Runs until 7 September 2017 | Image: Contributed