MA’AM , THE MINION AND THE MACHO MAN
“I never boasted an education. I learned tricks” says Princess Margaret, bitterly, at a late point in Richard Stirling’s interesting but frustrating new play. For a moment you think – yes, that’s it! if a wilful, lively, pretty young woman learns nothing of science, history, and the deeper nobility of history and literature, but all she is given is that Princess status, things will go sour for her. And they did. Between the impertinent imaginations of The Crown on Netflix , and the brilliant “99 glimpses” collected from memoirs by Craig Brown in his book Ma’am Darling, there is a resurgence of interest in the Queen’s late sister. So Stirling’s play is well placed to attract interest.
And with more refinement, it could be genuinely worthwhile. It encounters the Princess in lateish middle age and the royal family’s Annus Horribilis: she’s divorced from Snowdon , resenting Diana (“Golden Girl”) and bitching about the “rentaKents” next door. Separated for the moment from her young lover Roddy, she is engaged in a curious incident, based on reality, when she burned a number of potentially damaging letters and papers from the Queen Mother’s Clarence House.
Stirling himself plays the QM’s ‘page” Backstairs Billy, with rather more camp than is strictly necessary, assisting her and keeping the drinks coming. A fictional young chancer turns up, to indicate the general hunger for royal gossip and leaks, and in the second and more interesting half the thuggish ex-con Bindon (in real life one of her Mustique pals) turns up, terminally ill, to challenge her.
That bit is interesting, touching at times. And Felicity Dean is brilliant as Margaret, catching – whenever the script allows – a confusion between being posh and frozenly Princessy and being slangy and matey: a problem widely observed by those who perceived her best. Patrick Toomey’s Bindon is strong too, and between them we get some real chemistry. Though I doubt he’d have rough-housed her as readily with staff in the next room, ex-lover or not.
But the terrible slow-burn of the first half merely exasperates: the witty one-liners are placed too obviously from real memoirs, and you get no real sense of the mixed hauteur and familiarity in her rather overlong dealings with Billy. I really want this to be a better play, and it may grow into one. But too much misfires. The best line is when Bindon threatens her saying “If you were a man – “ and she snaps “If I were a man, I’d be king”. That hits home.
Parktheatre.co.uk to 17 March
PS By the way, the excellent co-production of A Passage to India is still running in the bigger space at the Park…till the 24th. This is my Northampton review of it: https://tinyurl.com/yaog4m92