Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 26 June 2016
Loosely hung on the true events of the day, Wallis is a fictional tale about the love affair and ensuing constitutional nightmare that arose in the 1930s when the then Prince of Wales (shortly to become Edward VIII) fell for Wallis Simpson, a married American divorcee.
Jennifer Selway has written both play and lyrics for the occasional songs that break up the action. Selway’s script has rare moments of sage comment as well as levity but for the most part the dialogue serves as superficial narrative, rather than meaty drama. There’s little of the sort of wit that that made Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey scripts sparkle, whilst Selway’s songs, aspiring to emulate Noel Coward also fall short of the mark.
What redeems this production however are the actors, with John Plews (devising and directing) coaxing fine work from his company. Emma Odell is a wonderful Wallis Simpson, maintaining the convincing, waspish Maryland belle throughout. Un-ashamedly played as a ruthless social climber, Odell’s Simpson compellingly has the Prince in her thrall. Opposite her, Grant McConvey’s lovestruck Edward is arguably more Alan Partridge than heir-apparent, though in a role that has been written into barely more than a cliché, McConvey makes a watchable fist of it.
There’s sterling work from Bernard O’Sullivan as Stanley Baldwin, the much put upon Prime Minister of the time, while Eliza McClelland turns in a cracking double header, first as Lady Cunard (think of Downton’s Shirley MacLaine on acid) and later as Baldwin’s wife Lucy. Katie Arnstein and Robert Hazle offer up a twee (and arguably superfluous) sub-plot of love “below stairs”, though Hazle brings a marvellous voice to the show’s songs. There’s an ambitious set too, complete with a spinning revolve no less, though any production that is set amidst the opulence of the aristocracy is always going to find it hard work to make pub theatre look a million dollars.
It all gets rather muddled in the endgame and if the audience had been allowed to abdicate the Gatehouse maybe 30 minutes earlier it would have been no bad thing. But the cast put in a fine shift and this snapshot of early 20th century British and American stereotypes still offers a fun night out in Highgate.
Runs until 26th June