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Review Round-up: Wright's Duchess Bows in Hampstead

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Nicholas Wright's new play The Last of the Duchess opened to critics last week (26 October, previews from 20 October) at Hampstead Theatre, directed by Richard Eyre.

The action is set in a mansion near Versailles, where Wallace Simpson nears the end of her life and her French lawyer Suzanne Blum (Sheila Hancock) desperately tries to 'protect' the Duchess from the determined journalistic efforts of Caroline Blackwood (Anna Chancellor).

Also starring Angela Thorne and John Heffernan, The Last of the Duchess continues until 26 November.

Matt Trueman

"Wright’s first act, teeming with high-society tittle-tattle, is like a staged edition of a vintage Tatler. It lacks the double perspective to mine universals from its aristocratic subjects. However, after the interval, Wright settles down to business proper and presents a proper journalistic duel. While Blackwood, joyfully played by Anna Chancellor with the lolloping surliness of a tipsy teenager, builds towards a cry of 'J’accuse', Blum guards the Duchess with parries and deflection. Wright makes an entertaining and even bout between the ruthless and the rueful. Beneath all this is the question of truth and representation. With both Blackwood and Blum’s versions skewed by their opposing motives, Wright’s concern is with history’s gatekeepers ... Chancellor and Hancock make worthy adversaries, each filling their role with characterful forthrightness, but Richard Eyre’s production would be better served by a less literal staging. Though Anthony Ward’s copper green gauze walls add a ghostly quality, the naturalistic setting – all regency sofas and antique statuettes – emphasises Wright’s light drawing-room comedy over its titanic clash. It does, however, allow decent comic turns from John Heffernan and Angela Thorne as Michael Bloch, Maitre Blum’s own loyal protector, and Lady Moseley respectively."

Michael Billington

"...While written with intelligence and finesse, the story is not quite strong enough to bear the weight of meaning placed upon it ... Along the way, Wright devises some highly effective scenes. One of the best involves Blackwood's encounter with Blum's protege, Michael Bloch. Beautifully played by John Heffernan, Bloch emerges as a whimsical Irish expat ... who tactlessly tells her: 'I've got a very soft spot for difficult women.' The play also involves the pleasure of seeing two tough, strong-minded women engaged in a battle of wills ... But, even if Wright's play is based on a dubious premise, Richard Eyre's staging explores the central power struggle with great style and yields two excellent performances. Anna Chancellor lends the vodka-swilling, heavy-smoking Blackwood a mixture of raffish charm and iron determination that explains why she attracted equally powerful men such as Freud and Robert Lowell. Sheila Hancock matches her perfectly as Blum suggesting a woman driven both by obsessive loyalty and outrageous snobbery ... But, although Angela Thorne does a decent job as Lady Mosley, I failed to share the delight in the appearance of this unrepentant old fascist simply because she has grown deaf in one ear."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"... Wright’s own play itself panders to our appetite for high grade gossip. All this makes for a rich dramatic mix, and Richard Eyre’s production, with a design by Anthony Ward that simultaneously suggests the palatial and the funereal, deftly combines sharp comedy with a frosty sense of mortality and grief ... the battle royal between Sheila Hancock’s steely snobbish lawyer, bristling with self-righteousness but with a dangerous chink of personal vanity in her armour, and Anna Chancellor as the glamorous but frazzled aristocrat who will stop at nothing to unearth what she needs as a writer, offers terrific entertainment. Throw in a hilarious turn from Angela Thorne as a splendidly grand yet gossipy Diana Mosley, delightful in everything except her politics, and John Heffernan as Bloch’s deliciously camp young assistant, and you have a comic gem that also sounds deeper, darker notes of fear and the vanity of human wishes."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Nicholas Wright's new play engages with an intriguing subject, modish enough to have inspired a film by Madonna - Wallis Simpson, otherwise known as the Duchess of Windsor. Tinged with nostalgia, it's also witty and original, and Richard Eyre's elegant production is lit up by skilful performances ... The key characters are the fiery, heavy-drinking Lady Caroline (a richly convincing Anna Chancellor) and Suzanne Blum ... As the latter, with her iron countenance and clipped manner, Sheila Hancock gives a measured, taut performance ... Wright has trenchant things to say about the allure of celebrity and the way all of us weave fictions around ourselves. He is sensitive to the problems faced by women defined by their passions ... here's detailed support from John Heffernan as Suzanne's assistant Michael Bloch - physically awkward, yet both a crafty strategist and fundamentally humane. And Angela Thorne is a delight, full of splendidly patrician vowels as Diana Mosley. True, the play lacks an organic momentum, and the material seems a bit slight. We may also leave wishing we could hear more testimony from the Duchess herself. But Wright, adept at dramatising real lives, has created a piece that elicits first-rate acting."

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

"Wright’s exquisitely lathed play, based on Blackwood’s book, is - like Sir Richard Eyre’s production and Anthony Ward’s set - as pretty as a picture: the chateau setting in the Bois Du Boulogne makes it a gilt-trimmed spectacle.Chancellor’s Blackwood is, by contrast, a frumpy English aristo who shows up at the  chateau looking like she’s been dragged through the topiary backwards ... Chancellor has got that louche, combative snarl down to perfection, but I craved something rougher and cheaper still - like the half‑bottle of vodka she carries round with her in her lumpy handbag. Turn of the night comes from Angela Thorne as Diana Mosley - a dreadful cashmere fascist who wins a laugh for calling her husband Oswald ‘a leathery old komodo lizard’, and a gasp for saying: ‘I’ve got nothing against Jews . . . it’s just they behaved so badly in the Thirties.’ ... After that uncanny encounter, this handsome production is little more than a snapshot of social history."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Nicholas Wright’s new play is about illusions: versions of truth. Which is not to suggest pretentiousness, or lack of delighted laughter. I may have actually snorted at Angela Thorne’s Diana Mosley, with wickedly skewed eccentricity and Edwardian vowels ('larndry', 'gorn', even 'norstrils'). But her part is small, though fabulous ... Hancock is magnificent: conveying ferocity, possessiveness and at last the bones of her passionate identification with little Wally Warfield, born like her on the wrong side of the tracks ... The joy of the play is in the riveting unpeeling of true selves: all of them ... Sir Richard Eyre directs, immaculately. To him is ascribed the description of critics fleeing up the aisle during the curtain call, as we must, 'like rats up an alley'. This rat really longed to stay, clap and cheer."

- Natalie Generalovich


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