It’s hard not to speculate what the British monarch makes of the recent slew of fictional representations of her family drama, of which Diana, The Musical is the latest. We are, of course, unlikely to ever know, as the Queen still subscribes to the mantra “never complain, never explain”. But from this commoner’s point of view, Diana is an exuberant interpretation of the late Princess of Wales’ struggles to make her royal marriage work. With a stellar cast and witty lyrics, the lavish production subscribes firmly to the view that Diana was a saint in a golden cage, cynically exploited by her husband and his mistress and hounded by the ravenous wolf pack that is the paparazzi.
It’s almost a quarter of a century since Diana’s death, yet she remains an iconic figure and object of fascination. Diana, The Musical has enough set up in case there is anyone who has managed to remain new to the story. The mesmerizing Jeanna De Waal as Diana effortlessly evolves from ingenue bride who marries at 19 to become overnight, as the lyrics point out, a “global fantasy”. The writers Joe DiPietro and David Bryan have made some wise choices of what to leave out from the real-life story. Diana’s sons only appear as bundled babies and Diana’s well-known struggles with eating disorders are left aside altogether. Diana’s tell-all TV interview with the discredited Martin Bashir, on the other hand, is a more puzzling omission. But they have also made some inspired decisions on who to include as supporting cast. Judy Kane is not only a comforting, wise and wise-cracking Queen, dishing out marriage advice to both her son and Diana, but also does a camp turn as Barbara Cartland. The romance novelist, by a twist that is better than any fiction, was Diana’s step-grandmother. This vision in hot pink chiffon introduces the show stopping entrance of James Hewitt, the army Captain who became Diana’s lover. Played by Gareth Keegan, he’s portrayed as a hot, but dumb stud who gets redeployed to Germany just when Diana needs him most. But we don’t meet any of Diana’s other beaus including, significantly, Dodi Al Fayed. Lyrics also include some of the most famous lines from the royal marriage with one number revolving around Charles’ ambivalent response when asked on his engagement if he loves Diana, “Whatever love means.”
Diana is rarely offstage, requiring some spectacular quick-change stunts, which brings us to the costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Along with cameos of such figures as Andrew Morton, the muckraking journalist who Diana chose as her voice in print, the clothes are characters in their own right. Of course, there’s the meringue-style wedding dress, the sheep motif sweater, the blue suit with its twee secretary bow she wore for her engagement announcement, the green tent of a dress that she had to leave hospital after William’s birth and countless gowns and tiaras as Diana graduates from frilly frocks to couture. Nearly all are ripped straight from Diana’s real-life wardrobe and as such bring back memories for those of us who followed her every move when she was alive. One stunning little black dress becomes the subject of its very own song “The Dress” when it’s accurately and hilariously described as a “fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuckity-fuck you dress”. First sung by Anthony Murphy in a cheeky turn as the butler Paul Burrell, the number recalls the night Diana appeared at a gala dressed to kill. It happened to be the same night Charles confessed to his long-term affair with Camilla Parker Bowles in an interview on national TV. Even the Queen joins in the chorus of the song to marvelous effect. The score is consistently lively and seems inspired in part by music of 80s and 90s–music that Diana adored and Charles abhorred.
The villains of the piece, Roe Hartrampf as Charles and Erin Davie as Camilla, are superb as the star-crossed lovers who selfishly can’t see beyond their love for each other. Their duet “I Miss You Most on Sundays” reveals that they are each other’s comfort zone far away from the formality and glamor of royal life. But with her tweed suits and scheming, Camilla’s role is pretty thankless. Charles is firmly cast as an out of touch anachronism but has a standout moment of utter rage at Diana and her inability to maintain a stiff upper lip.
You demean us all, Diana,
Each time you cause a scene
Have you forgotten Diana
You’re in line to be Queen!
This song comes just as Diana has performed on stage with the Royal Ballet. Later, she yet again upstages the heir to the throne by visiting AIDS sufferers when they were shunned by the rest of society. There’s a touching scene in a hospice when Diana’s trademark empathy takes center stage.
It would be remiss not mention the other constant theme of this show, the ever-present paparazzi and their role in destroying Diana’s life. Here they are a group of flashbulb-wielding, raincoat-wearing sleaze balls whose number, “Snap, Click”, captures their ruthless pursuit of their royal prey. Yet, they are also perhaps in part responsible for our enduring fascination with the Royals. The constant coverage perpetuates the royal drama and, one might speculate, gives rise to Broadway musicals. Is Diana, The Musical any less exploitative than newspaper headlines? Intrusive media scrutiny was also instrumental in the departure of Harry and Meghan from royal life. A few lines in Diana suggest that she, too, was dreaming of running away to America. As interest in the royals seems to continue unabated, in years to come will we also be treated to Harry and Meghan, The Musical? Or is Diana different, and as the final number suggests, did she cast a special light on the world that will not be seen again?