Patrick Freyne: Royals ride who they like. It says so in Latin on the Windsor crest

Diana: The Musical tells the story of the famous tea-towel and mug model Diana, princess of Wales

Jeanna De Waal in the musical Diana. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

Jeanna De Waal in the musical Diana. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

 

As the Irish Times Royal Correspondent, it has come to my attention that Diana: The Musical is on Netflix, so I’ve cancelled my extensive budget coverage to write about it. (Apologies to the politics desk.) 

Diana: The Musical tells the story of the famous tea-towel and mug model Diana, princess of Wales. Modern royals have no political power and don’t do much except shake hands and kill their ancient enemy, the fox. Having a story about a royal is like having a story about a flag or a crest or a spoon: it’s difficult to dramatise.

The solution, clearly, is to make everyone sing and dance. Musicals are perfect for tight-lipped aristocrats. In musicals people sing their unspoken internal thoughts, and no one else can hear them. In contrast, when I sing my unspoken internal thoughts, feelings are hurt. (Again, apologies to the politics desk.)

Diana is, in this musical, a salt-of-the-earth commoner elevated beyond her station by the love of a royal, much like the Little Mermaid or Jay-Z

Enter Diana (Jeanna de Waal), fresh from the mean streets of Northamptonshire. She is, in this musical, a salt-of-the-earth commoner elevated beyond her station by the love of a royal, much like the Little Mermaid or Jay-Z. Darkness is on the horizon, however. A chorus of royal staff sing about how she’s “the best girl … for the worst job in England”. (I’m pretty sure the actual servants of the person with the “worst job in England” might argue they have “an even worse job in England, actually”, but it feels rude to bring it up.)

A press swarm enter, depicted, as is our wont, with trilbies, trench coats and Cockney accents. (It’s like an EastEnders episode here at The Irish Times.) Diana also wears a cosy jumper with sheep knitted into it. But if you look closely you’ll see that one of the sheep is a black sheep. (I’m a “critic”, just like Jacques Derrida!)

Anyway, this production winks so much at the audience that it soon starts to look like a twitch. But I like it. Like most consumers of culture, I never again want to watch anything I haven’t seen or read about a thousand times.

Diana is being wooed by Charles, the heir to the British throne, which is a big heavy chair that British people have instead of a written constitution. He already has a mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, inventor of the “bowl”, but he doesn’t feel as if this is an impediment to marriage, because, as it says in Latin on the Windsor crest, Royals Ride Who They Like. He is a cavalier Prince Charles, and one day he’ll be a cavalier King Charles.

Diana is being wooed by Charles. He is a fuddy-duddy and takes her to a concert to hear the music of Bach. She hates Bach, for she loves the music of the streets: Dire Straits, Elton John, Showaddywaddy

He is also a fuddy-duddy and takes Diana to a concert to hear the music of Bach. She hates Bach, for she loves the music of the streets: Dire Straits, Elton John, Showaddywaddy. She imagines taking Charles to a funky club where they groove to squelchy guitars and he does “the robot”. I feel that if he did this now it would keep the royals going for another generation. (A lot of former royal correspondents work for the crown as consultants, you know.)

They get married. The wedding has a fancy-dress theme. Diana dresses as a large flouncy cake and Charles dresses as a flamboyant ship’s captain. They attend an event in Wales at which Diana outshines Charles and the chorus line pretend to be the Welsh. They do this by wearing flat caps and singing in a “Welsh” accent that lands somewhere between Scottish and owl. I didn’t think I was ever going to see anything new again in theatre, but I was wrong: this is something new.

Diana has a child to whom she sings “To me you’re more than just an heir…” To which the baby barely stops himself from saying: “I’m unnerved you felt the need to say that, Mother.”

Then she has another child, to whom she sings: “Harry, my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none.” Which can be translated as: “Harry, you red-haired gonk, I’m now lying to you about the rules of succession.”

She has a bad time for a while due to Charles being off riding with Camilla, but then she finds herself. “She moves in the most modern way,” sing various characters. What does this even mean? Perhaps they’re referring to that performance of the “robot” earlier in the show. Or maybe she has a jet pack or wheels on her feet, like R2-D2.

We are continuously told that Diana is a revolutionary figure who is going to change the world. Her political awakening manifests itself, much as it did with James Connolly and Che Guevara, in the wearing of nice frocks and speaking to peasants as though they are human beings and not sentient bunting.

Diana embraced Aids patients when the world was still demonising them. That bit can’t help but be touching. Though here one of the men sings the couplet ‘I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell’

At a royal gala she does a dance on the stage, flouting Britain’s famous Footloose laws. Her behaviour angers her fellow royals, because it’s an implicit critique of monarchy that suggests they should hug more and wear better dresses. They’re clearly unaware of other critiques of monarchy that say their heads should be on pikes.

Diana is still sad about Camilla, however, so a pink-clad Barbara Cartland arrives to talk camply about unfulfilled longings. Then James Hewitt rises up through a trapdoor in the floor, topless, astride a saddle, while Cartland gurns. It’s like something created by Jeff Koons and it’s beautiful.

Hewitt says, “There’s only one type of lesson I offer, riding lessons,” and once more my faith in the theatrical arts is renewed. So there is extramarital riding for Diana, but she still gets to have a showdown with Camilla. This is because, dramatically, she needs to be the victim of this horrible marriage or else it all just looks like a bunch of rich-person shit.

In fairness, the musical does present one truly meaningful thing Diana did for the world. She embraced Aids patients when the wider world was still cruelly demonising them. That bit can’t help but be touching. Though in this version one of the men sings the couplet “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell,” and that character deserves his own musical.

After that, the tit-for-tat media war between Charles and Diana plays itself out like a hastily assembled listicle. Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton sings a horrible song, which is how I imagine him pitching his books. Paul Burrell, Diana’s butler, chips in with wise melodic advice like a magical talking teapot in a Disney film. The queen and Diana have a completely made-up conversation in which they agree, as per dramatic convention, that they’re not so different after all. And if the revolutionary council were ever to take possession of the palace, they’d probably have the same view.

It all concludes with Diana divorced and facing the future. “If Charles steps aside and lets William reign, then all this suffering will not have been in vain,” she sings, weirdly, as though producing an heir was her real purpose after all. Then she walks slowly offstage as the chorus line reads out reports of her tragic end. This bit, softie that I am, I find moving, even though the musical as a whole is the weirdest thing I’ve seen since Cats. Next week: Cats!

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