The 1997 Edward-and-Mrs-Simpson West End flop Always was a gushing affair that depicted the couple as the most heroic of lovers. Fortunately Wallis: A Certain Person, Jennifer Selway’s long-winded and gossipy but ultimately emotionally nuanced play with music, takes a less rose-tinted look at this notorious liaison.
Making Wallis Simpson sympathetic is not an easy task. Selway rightly doesn’t try to rehabilitate Wallis as a misunderstood romantic heroine and doesn’t sentimentalise the way in which the great passion was very much on Edward’s side and more smothering than romantic.
As Wallis, Emma Odell is all angular aloofness and drawling nonchalance, unashamedly flouting the rules of mistress-hood by behaving like a disagreeable wife. Grant McConvey perceptively portrays the Prince of Wales as an emotionally stunted man-child wholly unsuited to power, even of a ceremonial kind.
John Plews’ production evokes a world of cocktail parties and naughty weekends in the country. The revolving set contributes a real sense of luxury but the moving around of the furniture between the many changes of setting undercuts much of the tension, a particular snag when the story is so well known.
The musical element is provided by the framing device of a gay valet (played with warmth by Robert Hazle) and his parlourmaid wife. These interludes help to cover up the scene changes but more entertainingly send up the bizarre institution that is the monarchy: something that it is possible to disapprove of but still be fascinated by.