Paul Webb's new play is a fantasy based on the life of the woman who was at various times, Mrs Wallis Simpson and the Duchess of Windsor. The fantasy is, that instead of the empty-headed, vain, frivolous snob she was widely thought to be, Wallis Simpson was a sort of one-woman Bilderberg Group, manipulating many of the major historical events of the 20th century.
So, we encounter her murdering King George V, spying for Hitler, bedding Franco and Richard Nixon, ordering the assassination of John and Robert Kennedy, and, most heinously of all, being responsible for the political rise of Margaret Thatcher. Strangely, while inventing several myths about her, A Dangerous Woman doesn't dwell on her other affairs, particularly that with James Donohue.
From her Paris home in the death of her husband's death, Wallis Simpson tells her own story, musing on the wasted years and revealing that, far from being the greatest romance of the age, her husband's abdication, committed for the sake of her divorced hand in marriage, was a source of bitter regret for the couple.
Webb's particular conceit is that Wallis is driven by her love and admiration of Shakespeare, who she holds up as a role model in her attempt to climb the greasy poll. Citing as inspiration Macbeth, Iago, Richard III, Cleopatra and Prospero, she draws modern parallels to some of the most famous characters and scenarios in theatrical history. It's a bizarre interpretation, partly because the real-life Wallis Simpson was not known for her literary enthusiasms and partly because it looks so contrived.
There's enough imagination at work here to suggest something more could have been done with the vision of the Duchess as a scheming power broker, but the Shakespearean allusions are a step too far. And the idea of this woman creeping into an ailing king's bedroom to despatch him, Duncan-like, is far too heavy-handed.
Pip Pickering's plodding direction is not likely to bring the scenario to life either. And surely the device of flooding Wallis's face in a satanic, red glow had become a cliche around the time she'd sipped her first martini?
The production's biggest failing comes care of Jennifer Croxton, the actress playing the older Duchess, who appears extraordinarily under-rehearsed. Of course, actors sometimes stumble over lines, forget others and repeat themselves, but I've never heard so many errors issue from the mouth of a single actor in a single performance. To be fair to Croxton, on the press night, she did apparently suffer from a sore throat, not to mention some gremlins in the props.
In compensation, Sinead O'Keeffe's younger Duchess presents just the right mix of charm, flirtatiousness and malice - truly the serpent underneath the innocent flower.
But, perhaps the perfect coda to Webb's play is emerging from the charming Jermyn Street theatre into London's tailoring centre. Surrounded by expensive clothing, you can reflect on the fact that Wallis is now almost forgotten, while her hapless husband lives on, remembered for a tie knot.
- Maxwell Cooter