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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Last of the Duchess
Hampstead Theatre   Autumn 2011

When we run out of gossip about our favourite celebrities and our appetite isn't sated, we turn to gossip about those around them. If we don't have Michael Jackson, we'll settle for his doctor.

In that spirit, this is a play about the Duchess of Windsor in which, except for a brief dream sequence, the Duchess herself doesn't appear. Instead, we meet her butler, her friend and particularly Suzanne Blum, her lawyer and the jealous gatekeeper to the Duchess in her last years. 

Nicholas Wright's play (directed smoothly and transparently by Richard Eyre) is based on the book by Caroline Blackwood, who was sent in 1980 to do a magazine article on the Duchess and couldn't get past Blum's barricades. 

I've never had much sympathy for 'I was supposed to write a book about X but I couldn't meet or get a handle on X, so here's a book about why I couldn't write the book I was supposed to write' books, but Blackwood's had the saving grace of being less about herself or even the Duchess than the circle around her and how protecting or (in her eyes) exploiting the Duchess had become an industry in its own. 

The play version of necessity has to reduce the scope and cast of characters of the book, and in the process unfortunately brings it closer to the 'Why I couldn't write the book I was supposed to' school. 

Caroline Blackwood herself is the central character of the play, which shows a few of her encounters with Blum, and Blackwood's resentment of the lawyer's interference with her attempt at a profile of the Duchess. 

The problem is that the play's Blackwood isn't nearly as interesting as Blum (and neither of them, of course, as the Duchess), and we don't especially care about her problems, which also include an unearned self-righteousness and a heavy reliance on vodka. 

On the other hand, it is a credit to Wright that he doesn't make Blackwood a cardboard hero or Blum a simple villain, thus generating and sustaining a degree of ambiguity.

It is certainly brave of Anna Chancellor as Blackwood to play a character who begins with all the audience's sympathy and then gradually loses it as we learn facts and watch behaviour that undercut her authority and attractiveness.

If Chancellor allows her character to become less interesting the more we know about her, Sheila Hancock keeps Blum unknowable and thus fascinating throughout, an iron-willed woman whose one mission in life is to keep others away from the Duchess, though we can never be sure if that's to protect her image or to rob her blind. 

Chancellor's Blackwood has more stage time, but it is Hancock who gives the more sustained and textured performance.

Angela Thorne has a good scene as Diana Mosley, perfectly rational except on the subject of her husband's fascism, and happy purveyor of Windsor gossip. 

Not at all incidentally, it is nice to encounter a play with three good roles for mature actresses, and the attraction of The Last Of The Duchess lies more in the performances than the script or even the gossip.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   The Last of the Duchess - Hampstead 2011

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