This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
In the Summer of 1981 the Duchess of Windsor invited to her secluded villa in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, the 19 year-old Lady Diana Spencer who was about to marry the Prince of Wales. Well maybe she didn’t, but Australian writer/director/performer Chris Ioan Roberts imagines such a meeting and makes it the basis for this 50 minute one man show. Wallis, The Duchess, is intent on dispensing pearls of wisdom, whist Diana has been sent on a mission to retrieve pearls of Queen Alexandra, “stolen” by her hostess years before. Both ladies have come to be regarded as ill-used, tragic heroines and fashion icons, making them ideal subjects for the high camp treatment given by Roberts, who plays both. His Wallis is a faded, embittered Southern belle who sees herself as Scarlett O’Hara, although another Vivien Leigh guise, that of Blanche DuBois, comes more readily to mind. Tara’s Theme plays in the background as Wallis quips that her life story could be entitled “Gone With the Windsors”. She is scornful of the ITV series Edward and Mrs Simpson, but still plays back VHS tapes of episodes and mimes to the lines. Her snobbishness runs to being unable to admit to having a seafood allergy because it could be regarded as “common”, preferring to make herself ill, regularly. The meeting that we all want to see is, of course, impossible with this format. Instead, halfway though the show, Roberts makes a slow change of costume and wig to become Diana, who is still blissfully unaware of what the future holds for her. She too has a link to Gone With the Wind, copping out of reading the paperback that Prince Charles has given her, but finding that her attention span does not run to watching the entire film either. This is a show of rich humour but little depth. With both characters, Roberts finds a good balance between refinement and vulgarity, but, whilst there is a natural pathos in his demeanour, he explores neither the sadness of Wallis nor the vulnerability of Diana. His portrayals are not impersonations, nor do they represent the two women exactly (for example Wallis came from the Baltimore area and not the Deep South); more he is mocking their public images and giving them very little in the way of dignity. The show works best as a vehicle for a string of very funny jokes at the expense of our Royal Family. Roberts’ Wallis delivers the sort of bitchy material that the late Joan Rivers would have been proud of, shooting from the hip at Princess Margaret, the Princes Andrew and Edward and, of course, the Queen Mother (“face like yesterday’s Eton Mess”). His Diana has fewer targets – Charles and, unwittingly, her own limited intellect. Wallis was not to know that the best advice she could have given to Diana would have been never to return to Paris. Roberts takes his show back to Brisbane next, but his return to our shores will be more than welcome.
Performance date: 22 April 2015
Photograph: Patricia Oliveira