The ex-king is dead, long live the ex-king! We've hardly drawn breath since conducting the funeral rites over Always and now here are the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson experiencing a speedy theatrical resurrection in Snoo Wilson's HRH. This two-hander is an altogether more astringent and blackly stylish piece of work than that grovelling musical which, conveniently amnesiac about the Duke's Fuhrer-fancying and hopes of making a crowned comeback in a Nazi Britain, despatched the lovebirds to a married future of unclouded happiness.
HRH puts the record straight on that little fantasy. We meet up with the Windsors in 1943, when the Duke was Governor-General of the Bahamas. In the diplomatic pecking order, this is Siberia with add-on humidity. How it rankles with them, though precisely what higher posting a wartime government could have given an ex-king with pro-Hitler sympathies is hard to say. The Bahamas gig affords them lots of leisure, though, to pick at the scab of a seven-year marriage for which he had sacrificed a throne and she had, to all intents and purposes, sacrificed the right ever to divorce again.
The play is alive to the grotesque comedy of the situation (the little porno-nursery games the fretful, slighted couple play, like squirreling Queen Mary's jewels in a place that would faze the most hardened Customs official). But it also shows that the undivine duo are in what might be called a tragic Windsor-knot. Distracting himself from the depths he's too frightened to face by playing George Formby tunes on his banjo, Corin Redgrave's damaged silly-ass Duke is like the little boy the couple never had.
Amanda Donohoe's Duchess - pulling her features into various DIY facelift poses and employing diphthongs that make Loyd Grossman sound like Dolly Parton - doesn't look too sad at having only one baby around the house. Earlier this season, there was a show called Women on the Verge of HRT; the Duchess thought she was a woman on the verge of HRH. But, as more recent history demonstrates, the Palace likes to be sparing where those three letters are concerned. The petty snobbery of the Duchess is not overlooked here, but the play also brings home how her position as King- unmaker exposed her to being humiliated by yobs. You have only to recall the mob ugliness that erupted at the mere mention of Camilla Parker Bowles during that TV debate on the future of the monarchy to appreciate the dangers she must have faced.
The Duke's dim-wit dealings with shady businessmen in the Bahamas made those dangers worse. The play suggests that he colluded in a murder cover- up, causing an innocent man to be prosecuted so as to protect the real culprit, a property dealer who had helped him transfer huge amounts of currency to a Nazi-owned bank in Mexico. Quids in, then (or rather dollars), in the event of a German victory.
Given that the piece is a two-hander, this quite complicated story has to be relayed through references to a lot of offstage characters, which is a drawback. In Simon Callow's enjoyable production, the psychological advances of the narrow and intense focus on the couple aren't exploited as well as they were when an earlier version of HRH was mounted at Theatre Clwyd, Mold, three years ago. There, with the pair marooned on a mirrored disk in the middle of the audience, you got a whiff of a claustrophobic Sartrean hell. Here, the set is standard-issue colonial, suitable for Maugham or Coward. This funny, elegantly baleful play needs something more abstract.
Playhouse Theatre, London WC2 (0171-839 4401). Booking to 22 NovReuse content