Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Last of the Duchess 5th October 2011

Who is it? Anna Chancellor, Sheila Hancock, John Heffernan and Angela Thorne
Where did you see it? Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Reviews for this play from the press have been a bit 'meh' but in the past few weeks it suddenly sold out.I'm not really sure why either of those things happened. The Last of the Duchess is directed by Richard Eyre, adapted by Nicholas Wright (whose Travelling Light premieres at the National next month) from a book by Lady Caroline Blackwood. I'm aware the idea of an aristocrat going to Paris to meet Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor in the early eighties sounds elitist and dull but it is very much driven by its performances.

Sheila Hancock (Suzanne Blum) and Anna Chancellor (Caroline Blackwood)
Anna Chancellor plays the alcoholic Lady Caroline, determined to see the reclusive (and maybe dead) Duchess as she is to sip from her half bottle of Vodka in her large handbag. Her attempts are constantly thwarted by Suzanne Blum, played by the excellent Sheila Hancock and a very convincing French accent, Simpson's in-house lawyer and only companion following the death of Edward, Duke of Windsor. Blum's attempts work so well that the only time we see the Duchess is in an early dream sequence, where horror of horrors Blackwood just can't get a drink of vodka from the (we are lead to believe anyway) equally alcoholic Duchess of Windsor. The play is very much stolen by Angela Thorne playing Lady Diana Mosley, played to be frightenly likeable and funny (until her hatred and suspicion of Jews, primarily Blum) appears. Mosley spends much of time in Paris investigating Blum, who she feels is stealing from the Duchess, and complaining about how ill and lizard-like Oswald has become.

The play very much focuses on women, but is no means about strong women. It is about women forced to cope without their man (nearly all are widows by the end) rather than being able to cope without men and when there are men they are camp, weak and of much lower social status of the women (no matter how much they try to hide it) John Heffernan has a tough role supporting the female cast as Michael Bloch, I've only ever seen Heffernan as a support and would love to see him in a lead.

This play certainly isn't about sisterhood, the Blum/Blackwood rivalry would shame Bette and Joan. It is vicious, fuelled by suspicion and mistrust yet there is clearly mutual admiration. Blum is a shameless snob who can be won over by a title and a promise of a photography session with Lord Snowdon and Blackwood fails to hide how impressed she is by Blum's very famous clients (Disney, Chaplin and of course the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) the final showdown between the two shows Chancellor and Hancock at their best, with an ending that is both satisfactory but disappointing if you take Blackwood's side.

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