Theatre review: You, too, might fall for the queen of tarts

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The Independent Online
The fasination in watching HRH, Snoo Wilson's new play about the dubious activities of Edward and Mrs Simpson during their wartime spell in the Bahamas, lies in the constant shifts in our sympathies. We succumb to the batty charm of an upper- class twit and his savvy American beauty only to recoil from the ghastliness of what they have to say. We're glamoured by the insider gossip (being king, Edward tells us, is a "bloody boring job"), titillated by details of Wallis' sexual adventures, and then chilled by the selfishness, snobbishness and anti-semitism (not to mention the friendship with Hitler). It's love 'em and loathe 'em.

We can't help loving them just a bit. He gave up a third of the world for her (and she wasn't happy about it). They're exiles. The other Royals are beastly to them. And they are obviously unsuited to anything in life except for smiling in public and complaining in private. In Simon Callow's attractive production, Corin Redgrave and Amanda Donohoe are extremely good at presenting these two - without judging them at all - as "theatrical" characters. Redgrave gives a boulevard, almost end-of-the-pier, performance as the ex-king. With blond hair, floppy grins and naive optimism, he looks as if he went to the same charm school as Cecil Parkinson. He smokes, he knits, and when Wallis wants to check that no one's easvesdropping outside the louvred screens, he picks up his banjo. Like an adoring golden labrador, he has found his master. Amanda Donohoe's Wallis comes from another recognisable stable: bored, bitchy and amoral, she's a Lady Macbeth for the Bahamas. She sucks her lips, twists her long fingers in frustration and repeatedly hankers in her Baltimore twang after an "HRH".

In the Governor General's drawing room (sky and palm trees beyond) Wilson introduces us to the domestic problems of a couple who - if Hitler had won - might have returned to England as a puppet king and queen. Problem number one is money. To make more, the Duke sends $2m to a Nazi bank in Mexico. Unfortunately, the man he uses as a courier has just murdered the man the Windsors were expecting for dinner. The Duke takes over the investigation, and decides to frame another local businessman, in order to protect the courier (and himself). We have already been introduced to Wallis's extravagant sexual tastes (she likes to wear royal jewellery in places that can't be seen). Now she wants to claim her privilege as the Governor General's wife: "I'd like to sleep with a condemned man - especially one I'd condemned myself." Wilson's play is so cunningly equivocal that you find yourself laughing at the outlandishness of the situation before realising that a great deal of it is actually true.

There's a scene in Apocalypse Now when three showgirls who are flown in to entertain the US troops in Vietnam are protected from the GIs by barbed wire and a moat. A sedate version of this arms-length policy occurs at Chichester. From the front-row seats to the edge of the stage there is a carpet and four wide low steps: the ensuing action seems to take place just beyond our reach. This effect is redoubled by Chichester's current penchant for taking an epic stage - conceived by its founder Leslie Evershed-Martin as "branching out anew from orthodox theatre buildings and presentations" (a venue, for instance, where The Royal Hunt of the Sun was premiered) - and using it for routine revivals of proscenium drama.

The main attraction in Nicholas Broadhurst's amiable, if leisurely, production of Pinero's The Magistrate is the presence in the title role of Ian Richardson. Unlike most actors, we warm to Richardson most when we don't believe a word he's saying. Knowingness, irony and disdain suit him better than bewilderment and disorientation. Here, he plays a man who has been deceived by his wife Agatha (Abigail McKern), who is lying about her own age, into thinking that his 19-year-old stepson Cis is only 14. As Cis, the puckishly fey John Padden leads Richardson off to late-night revels at the Hotel des Princes, which end in a police raid. This is good fun, but doesn't draw on Richardson's talent. You only see the latter when he moves aside and slits open a letter at his desk. A look of smug serenity plays across his lips - and you barely hear what the other characters are saying.

Trying to recall the multifarious themes, events and styles employed in Overboard, Michel Vinaver's 1969 play, revived at the Orange Tree as part of the French theatre season, is like playing in the conveyer-belt quiz in The Generation Game. There was the toilet-paper company losing its market share. The Aristophanic chorus with masks. The moody jazz trio. The Holocaust speech. The dancers. The satire on marketing. The tweedy lecturer in Nordic myths. The mock interviews with the audience. The Freudian discussion about the child's love of "poo-poo" ... oh, and the self-conscious playwright who comments on the action and apologises that scenes are too long (and well he might).

It wasn't only themes which crowded the stage. In Sam Walters's vauntingly ambitious production, 20 actors play 40 characters in an area that could barely house a snooker table. For a space this size, the acting is too big - and too twee. Only one moment of Vinaver's capaciously whimsical and undigested drama had snappy motivation: on returning to his seat after the interval a fellow critic discovered the second half was two hours long. He stood up and walked out.

The advice Noel Coward gives about new plays in Present Laughter is to write 20 and then if your 21st is produced on a Sunday night to count yourself lucky. The Bush Theatre celebrates 25 years of new writing with a debut play by Dublin actress Hilary Fannin. Mackerel Sky is full of calculated eccentricity. The mother-in-law enters the kitchen with a double- barrelled shotgun. The teenage daughter gets her hair straightened on the ironing board. The absentee father is represented by a cardboard cut- out. If one ran through a list of understandable faults in a first play - overwritten dialogue, underwritten characters, themes stated rather than explored, etc - then Mackerel Sky is a respectable debut. May Fannin write 20 more.

'HRH': Playhouse, WC2 (0171 839 4401). 'The Magistrate': Chichester Festival (01243 781 312). 'Overboard': Richmond Orange Tree (0181 940 3633). 'Mackerel Sky': Bush, W12 (0181 743 3388).

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