Battle Royal at the National - Lyttelton

If you think Princess Diana had it bad, spare a thought for Princess Caroline. This German lass was married off to heir to the throne George IV back in 1794. But her Prince of Wales wasn't only in love with another woman, he was married to her.

Because George's love, Maria Fitzherbert, was a Roman Catholic widow and a commoner, the marriage was kept secret. By the time he reached his early thirties, the profligate Prince had run up astronomical debts, and his father, the king, was pressing for a public marriage that would both dig George out of a financial hole and generate some much-needed good will towards the royal family.

The unsuspecting, and rather unsophisticated, princess from Brunswick was brought in to do the deed, but the union was, unsurprisingly, a less than happy one. The warring sides were soon living apart and embroiled in his and hers adulterous affairs. Divorce was on the cards and, by the time George senior kicked the bucket and the woesome couple were poised to ascend to the throne, statesmen and clergy were grumbling about a constitutional crisis and the masses dividing into King-ites and Queen-ites according to who they judged was the most wronged. Does any of this sound familiar?

Nick Stafford finished his script for Battle Royal two years ago but the National postponed a production for fear the play would too closely mirror the marital catastrophes of the House of Windsor. Of course, it's absurd to think Stafford didn't have this in mind when writing nor that Howard Davies didn't when directing. Still, parallels left to one side, the story of Caroline and George is a fascinating and sad one in and of itself.

Both Zoe Wanamaker, as the wilful and hyperactive Caroline, and Simon Russell Beale, as the portly and arrogant George, are superb in parts that seem custom made for their talents. The most entertaining - and touching - scenes are when the two are left alone to spar, such as on their awkward wedding night and following the trial of Caroline which foiled George's divorce plans. It's a shame that Stafford's script doesn't allow more of these moments. In a play whose running time stretches three hours, you'd think there'd be plenty of opportunities.

But alas, the final act is weighed down by continental to-ings and fro-ings, courtroom tirades and party political skulduggery, and the kernel of the personal tale is overwhelmed, even in the final scene. As Caroline lies on her death bed - care of a bowel infection that conspiracy theorists seem to have left alone - a yearned for final reconciliation or showdown with her ornery husband is not forthcoming.

A missed opportunity for a real battle royal, but still, on balance, a worthwhile evening.

Terri Paddock