Fictionalised versions of real events seem to have become Hampstead Theatre's unofficial remit this season, and next up Nicholas Wright looks at the interviews that led to Lady Caroline Blackwood writing her book The Last of the Duchess. After her husband died, Wallis Simpson became a virtual recluse in her French mansion. The play takes place in 1980, as Blackwood (Anna Chancellor) is sent by the Sunday Times to try and negotiate an interview and Snowdon portrait of the Duchess of Windsor for the colour supplement, but finds that her fearsome lawyer Maître Blum (Sheila Hancock) will let nobody get near her. Though Blackwood takes an instant and intense dislike to Blum, she also realises she might actually make a more interesting subject matter than her employer, and egged on by the visiting Lady Mosley (Angela Thorne) starts to believe that something sinister is going on: Is Maître Blum keeping the Duchess prisoner in her own home, keeping her alive against her will, and selling off her jewelry?
It's an interesting premise, although a very early interval in Richard Eyre's production (the first act runs at just 35 minutes) means you don't get much chance to get your head round where it's going; it's only after we return that it becomes clear that this is a mystery of sorts, as Caroline's suspicions take form. Hancock and Chancellor have a great antagonistic relationship: The former handling a highly mysterious character, a dragon who seems obsessed with her aristocratic masters, having convinced herself that the famously mean former King was a great humanitarian; the latter struggling to deal with her husband's recent death and conducting interviews while completely drunk. There's always fun to be had with the character of a lovely old lady who turns out to be a big fat hairy racist, and Wright and Thorne have the ultimate example to play with in Diana Mosley (Hitler was a guest at her wedding) and the character presents interesting contradictions. Wright deals with the issue of how Mosley would feel about the Jewish Blum, although that does make it stand out more that we never get any exploration of how this affects the lawyer's relationship with the notorious Nazi sympathisers she works for and appears to adore. Though all these characters have their funny moments they all have a darkness to them so it's left to John Heffernan to provide a lighter touch as Maître Blum's slightly camp, hero-worshipping assistant Michael Bloch. Many of my Twitter friends are completely in love with The Heff and although I wouldn't say I felt quite the same, after this performance I think I understand what they mean a bit more than I have when I've seen him in other things. It has its flaws but The Last of the Duchess has, once it gets into its stride, a lot to recommend it.
The Last of the Duchess by Nicholas Wright, based on the book by Caroline Blackwood, is booking until the 26th of November at Hampstead Theatre.