A Princess Undone
By Richard Stirling
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
There's been a resurgence of interest in Princess Margaret, the Queen's late sister lately, from Craig Brown's wonderfully waspish Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret to The Crown, which introduced new audiences of millions to the pathos of her affair with and renunciation of Group Captain Peter Townsend, which rocked the nation. But it was SHE who chose to put "duty" before love so the subsequent image of her as some tragic heroine rings hollow. Instead she lapped up the status and attention and behaved appallingly for the next 50 years because she knew she'd get away with it. Gore Vidal, a friend, summed her up best when he observed "She is far too bright for her station in life, which she takes altogether too solemnly". It's that sense of intelligence gone bad which Felicity Dean captures so well in this acutely observed chamber piece.
The writer also plays Billy Tallon, the camp steward to The Queen Mother, whom Margaret secretly engages one night in the summer of 1983. Most of the family are in Balmoral and she remains behind in Kensington Palace so she gets him to assist her in destroying bundles of volatile family letters which they've removed from the Queen Mother's rooms. These are not just about her colourful past but many relate to Princess Diana. By this time she and the "Golden Girl", as she dismissively dubbed her, were not on good terms. She had no time for Diana's public saintliness nor her futile courting of the press.
Dean brilliantly captures how Margaret was always "on", like some tiresome actor, and it was this that no doubt attracted the retinue of celebrity hangers on, right through the 50s and 60s. Alone with her devoted servants, she would artfully switch voices from mocking Cockney fishwife one second to Royal personage demanding subservience the next. Permanently sipping whisky and puffing on a cigarette holder she sets about her evening of destruction by donning a pair of yellow marigolds and fashioning a paper crown with a scissors, a perfectly theatrical image conjured by up director Jonny Kelly.
The play, although uneven, is a gossipy treat, full of gags about 'Rent a Kent' (Princess Michael) and everyone she despised, which was most people, but there is also too much implausibility at times. Stirling is supremely queeny as the retainer but it is hard to believe that she would allow him to take the liberties that he does. Likewise, a visit from a young thief posing as a friend of Lord Linley (her son) seems an unlikely occurrence.
She relished fraternising with underworld characters and her other visitor is John Bindon (a commanding Patrick Toomey), a gangland associate and past conquest, who returns looking for payment before destroying some incriminating photographs. This fictional final meeting between the two is imagined as a compelling power battle. Both intelligent, both with a lust for life, they were well matched but of course could never have had an acknowledged relationship.