The Diana Tapes – Stockwell Playhouse, London

Writer: James Clements

Director: WednesdayDerrico

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The publication of Andrew Morton’s book Diana: Her True Story was one of the more explosive non-fiction works of the 1990s. Detailing the Princess of Wales’s battles with bulimia and her attempts at suicide, it was as far removed from the image of the reserved, private Royal Family as it was possible. And while many of the claims in the book were euphemistically attributed to “close friends”, the true source for most was Diana herself.

The princess recorded a series of conversations with her close friend James Colthurst, who then passed them on to Morton with Diana’s blessing. Those tapes form the basis of this underwhelming play by James Clements, who also plays Morton.

The story of how Diana transformed herself from unhappy wife to media superstar by means of colluding with the tabloid press is a story for our times, and should make for a great play – but this is not that one.

Clements structures his plays as a series of duologues – between Morton and his publisher Michael O’Mara (Sam Hood Adrain), between Morton and Colthurst (Jorge Morales Picó), between Colthurst and Ana Cristina Schuler’s Diana. The effect is to lessen the impact of Diana’s story at the expense of the altogether more humdrum tale of a Yorkshire-born tabloid hack who lets a huge story fall into his lap.

It doesn’t help that both Picó and Schuler are woefully miscast as the upper echelons of English aristocracy. Both actors’ accents are bizarre, strangulated versions that sound as if each word has been learned phonetically, each sentence’s emphasis falling on the wrong syllable. The effect is distancing, resulting in an inevitable detachment from the play’s most intriguing character.

Clements’s script is the other limiting factor. The conversations between Morton and his publisher rely on expletive after expletive for supposed comedic value, but there is no sense of humanity in their dialogue at all. The one bright spark is Clements’s portrayal of Morton as a shambling buffoon who seems barely capable of functioning, let alone landing the biggest royal story since the abdication.

The play’s structure also denies Clements the opportunity to dive into other, potentially more interesting scenes: a comment that Morton had to “talk down” Diana from making more on-the-record statements is thrown away in a line of dialogue, when such a scene would have illuminated both characters’ motivations.

The result is an unfulfilling play which, far from diving into a fascinating story about the transformation of the royalty from aloof aristocrats to modern celebrity, merely skims its surface. When the most effective scene is a wordless transformation as Schuler’s Diana dresses in preparation for her Panorama interview, it is perhaps a sign that Clements’s work is unsuccessful.

Runs until 13 July 2018 | Image: Pablo Calderón-Santiago

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