Theatre: It's a right royal scandal, ma'am

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The Independent Culture


MATTER AND manner chime together charmingly in the inspired silliness of Love on the Throne. The National Theatre of Brent think big (they've put on the Ring cycle, The French Revolution and The Charge of the Light Brigade) but operate small (they are just two men in suits, the Gilbert and George of fruity am-dram). The joke lies in the ludicrous gap between aspiration and resources. So who better to play all the members of the royal family, another outfit where fallible reality falls some way short of the grandiose ideal? And who better to stick a pin into the pomp of royalty and royalty worship, while also communicating the curious pathos of these endlessly ordinary people thrust into roles that are too, well, majestic for them.

On a kitschy replica of a royal drawing room (with props like the Queen's turquoise handbag perched in readiness on gilded pillars), the Charles and Diana story is told, up to the divorce, by Patrick Barlow in his hilariously self-important persona of Desmond Olivier Dingle and his nerdy, gormless, insecurely toupeed sidekick Raymond (wonderful John Ramm).

The tone of the narration is a blissful blend of obsequious BBC royal documentary and G-dropping deadpan demotic ("And so it was, they done the royal weddin' "). All Desmond's attempts at stately deference are doomed, however, to fall foul of Raymond's chronic difficulty with his lines. He seems to think that the play is about the august House of Fraser, that Charles's mistress is a celebrated sofa (Camilla Parker Knoll) and that the Queen, after that famous bum period, would cry: "This year has truly been my anus."

I loved the idea of the newly married Diana checking out Highgrove with the naive rapture of someone staying at a three-star hotel for the first time ("My own towellin' bathrobe! Tea and coffee-makin' facilities!"). I also enjoyed the way that Diana's battle with palace protocol is mirrored in Raymond's growing mutinousness in his partnership with the stiflingly smug and stuffy Desmond.

However, in the midst of all the hilarity, the audience participation sequences and the perfectly timed parodies of incompetent acting, there are moments that still the house with their human sadness - for instance, a scene where Lady Diana declares her love for Charles by identifying with his loneliness, or an unmawkish conversation where the young princes nerve themselves for their parents' coming separation.

At the final parting, where the Prince apologises for not loving Diana as he should, the awkwardness and banality of the exchanges are tremendously touching as well as absurd ("I am going to see a holistic health practitioner who is benevolent and kindly and full of wisdom, which is all one needs, really..."). Diana claims that they never had anything in common, but the scene demonstrates that ironically they still do: both are lost souls.

The show originally was postponed because of the Princess's fatal car crash in Paris. It still wouldn't make an ideal 50th birthday treat for Charles, but it is never tasteless and is unalloyed pleasure. Memo to Her Majesty: it is a scandal, Ma'am, that these brilliant artistes are still waiting for their knighthoods.

To 31 January; 0171-369 1731