Musical: Always Victoria Palace, London

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The Independent Culture
For collectors of straight-faced camp on the grand scale, Always has its moments. Penned by Australian newcomers William May and Jason Sprague, it takes us on a grovellingly reverential, pageant-like progress through "the love story of the century". No, not Mr & Mrs Neil Hamilton - though Clive Carter, playing Edward VIII with a smiling, glassy-eyed woodenness, often comes over as an alarming cross between the ex-MP and Prince Charles. We're talking really "ultimate" love here, the kind that renounces crowns for pushy Baltimore divorcees. You've heard of "Divorce Me, Darling"? Welcome to "Dethrone Me, Darling".

The proceedings are imagined as the re-enacted recollections of the bereaved Duchess of Windsor, seen at the start in black-veiled, lily-bearing mourning at her husband's funeral in 1972. Her memories are a trifle selective, however, since they stop dead in April 1937 when - with his abdication and her divorce finally through - the ex-king and Wallis Simpson are free to wed. ("Will you marry me?" "Yes, yes, yes!!!" cries Jan Hartley (Wallis) who has to do a fair amount of exclamatory "I love him!!!" scene-ending.)

The Duchess's bizarre failure to remember a thing beyond this point allows Always to draw a convenient veil over the couple's hero worship of Hitler (whom they met in October 1937) and over the compulsive scab-picking of their gildedly trashy life in exile (which is the focus of HRH, a barbed Snoo Wilson play due in the West End later this year). The musical, by contrast, refuses to consign our lovebirds to a future of anything less than permanently unclouded bliss. "If Always were a place, I'd take you there/ Where we could love eternally" warbles Carter, and for an equivalently ludicrous mismatch between soupy sentiment and stuffed-shirt Windsor stiffness (resulting in Windsor soup?) you'd have to imagine Prince Philip in impassioned rendition of "Somewhere", the Bernstein song to which "Always" owes a largish debt.

Singing and acting impressively, Ms Hartley deserves better material than this crude sanitisation exercise. The Prince here is all strangulated decency and forward-looking vision, and in one rampantly obsequious scene, he's treated to a rousing chorale of loyalty by cloth-capped, picturesquely grubby Welsh miners. He and Wallis are, it's intimated, just two people who have been damaged by their backgrounds and who find salvation with each other. There are even suggestions that they re-achieve a childhood innocence in their love. "Would you like a ride, lady?" asked one posh little nipper, inviting the future Duchess on to a kiddies' roundabout. "Well, yes I would," answers Wallis, who then assures us in song that she can take a ride because she no longer fears what she feels inside.

Frank Hauser and Thommie Walsh's good-looking production (sets by Hildegard Bechtler) whisks up efficiently through the pulp and the pageantry - from Sybil Colefax's "Party of the Year" with tap-dancing cockney staff ("Don't you make a fuss / coz they're just like us") to the coronation ceremony where Wallis looms over the red-carpeted scene like some demented loving guardian angel. It's impossible to take a second of the piece seriously. "The American press show a prince and my wife/ Now this kind of stress I don't need in my life", sings Wallis's cuckolded husband (David McAlister), narked at the unimportance of being Earnest. Do any of us need the stress of this show in our lives? If Never were a place, you'd want to take it there. In terms of run, I suspect that Always will have to be renamed Briefly.

Booking to end of August (0171-834 1317)

Paul Taylor

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