HRH at the Playhouse Theatre

Prior to the performance of HRH, Snoo Wilson s new play about the relationship between former King Edward and Mrs Simpson, the bar at the Playhouse Theatre was buzzing with talk about star Amanda Donohoe. 'You know - she was in L.A. Law,' wives informed their husbands. The question left hanging in the air seemed to be, 'yes, but can she act?' Back in the bar, during the interval, Donohoe was still the main subject of conversation, and the appraisals seemed unanimously positive.

It would be churlish to disagree. Donohoe has great stage presence and something more. She camps it up bitchily as a Wallis Simpson, poised somewhere between a Coward vixen and Alexis Carrington from Dynasty. Certainly, Donohoe is no slouch compared to her more experienced partner on the stage, Corin Redgrave as the dethroned monarch.

Yet, although the performances are engaging, the play ultimately is not. For one thing, it s incredibly static. We join Edward and Mrs Simpson in the Bahamas in the 1940s, a time when the most interesting part of their story - the abdication - is over. Perhaps writer Snoo Wilson and director Simon Callow want to drive that idea home. Both Edward and Wallis pace about the set in ever decreasing circles. He has taken up knitting, sewing and banjo-playing. Her boredom and frustration is expressed through the repetitive gesture of applying cologne.

When a murder occurs on the island, Edward initially rises to the role of a Christie-style detective. But HRH is not a murder mystery and there s no attempt to create suspense around the case. Instead, the murder and the way Edward, as Governor of the Bahamas, deals with it serves to explore the relationship between this pair of misfits.

Not unexpectedly, the revelation is rather more unpleasant than Dorian Gray's portrait. We see that Wallis holds all the cards - not least because she has to think for both of them. Edward is portrayed as stupid and susceptible - a man who is still obsessed with his mother and riven with sexual insecurity. Wallis cynically pushes the buttons that predictably bring Edward to heel. Having failed to give her the one thing she craved - the title - he is effectively impotent.

Such a destructive relationship should make for better drama - one has only to think of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The problem here, I suspect, is that the issue is too clear cut. We re spoon-fed the idea that these two are stupid shits. There isn't anything further to engage the audience. It may once have been shocking to put a royal fairy tale under the microscope and reveal that all is not as it seems. Sadly, with the events of recent years, it s now all too sad and predictable a tale.

Justin Somper, October 1997