Bold, camp and gorgeously vulgar, Chris Roberts gets inside the skin of two women who each threatened to destroy the royal family.

Chris Roberts. Pic: Patricia Veira

Chris Roberts. Pic: Patricia Veira

Chris Ioan Roberts warns that his play Dead Royal – which he wrote, directs and performs – may feel like being bludgeoned with one of the Queen Mother’s Christmas hams. For true royal enthusiasts, this may well be true. For others, however, he has created a disturbing and wry observation of the Firm’s two key matrimonial disasters of the twentieth century.

Wallis Simpson was pilloried as the twice-divorced woman who led to the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, a constitutional catastrophe at the time. Here Roberts plays her living out her final days in Paris, still queening it rather unpleasantly with the servants and dressing with impeccable style. The Wallis suit, designed by Dinu Bodiciu for an earlier production, is beautifully cut, and it’s a feat in itself for hunky Roberts to slink around looking for all the world like a pin-thin Duchess.

As Wallis, the exiled Duchess

As Wallis, the exiled Duchess

She’s fretting about the impending marriage of Diana Spencer to the Prince of Wales, and Roberts draws heavily on contemporary recordings and quotes from the engaged couple. Hearing poor Diana’s voice, brightly assuring us nothing can go wrong ‘with Charles by my side’ still has a poignancy even for republicans. However Roberts is not a sentimentalist, and Diana is played as a foul-mouthed, punchy bride, irritated by not being able to locate the Windsor pearls she’s come to claim – and which Wallis has already spitefully dissolved in champagne.

Robin Soutar’s set and costumes evoke the 1980s with great panache – including a huge telly and a set littered with velvet cushions and chocolate truffle boxes. The play leans heavily on old-school technology, with the obvious problem that things like cassette machines can, and do, go wrong.

But there’s an undoubted success with the music, designed by London-based jazz pianist Duncan Boyce. He melds elements of early 1980s French and American pop music, but also draws heavily on Tara’s Theme, the sweeping music from Gone With The Wind, in which the exiled duchess finds solace.

As a drama, the first half featuring Wallis is immeasurably stronger than the second, with Diana, where the focus becomes fuzzier and the characterisation less convincing. But Dead Royal is a visual treat, and an ambitious, challenging work from an intriguing performer.

• Until Friday 24th April 2015, 7.45pm

Saturday 25th April, 5pm

Tickets from and 020 7582 7680 priced £10 (concessions £6).

Ovalhouse theatre, 52-54 Kennington Oval, London SE11 5SW.

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