One of the English theater’s loopier enterprises, the National Theater of Brent, returns to the London stage for the first time in over a decade, and you have to wonder how the capital gets by without it. Its current offering, “Love Upon the Throne,” might be assumed to capitalize on Princess Diana-mania, but it turns out to be a necessary corrective to it.
Actor-writer Patrick Barlow’s play is neither cruel nor hagiographic about a woman whose ghastly death happened well after the play was written (and, indeed, goes unmentioned during it).
But amid all the hysteria and journalistic mumbo-jumbo that inevitably accrues to the House of Windsor, there’s something deliciously sane about the NTB’s particular brand of insanity, which is both gleeful and, in some essential way, chastening.
NTB began life in 1980 as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — the same arts jamboree where this new show had its premiere last month as part of the festival mainstream.
In the intervening years, company mainstay Jim Broadbent has gone on to a lucrative career elsewhere (in films like “Bullets Over Broadway”), leaving the artistic reins to Barlow, whose stage alter ego, Desmond Olivier Dingle, remains as eccentric a fusspot as ever.
Early response suggests that “Love Upon the Throne” may be among the most successful efforts of a troupe whose previous credits include the “Ring Cycle” and the “Messiah.”
Following a sellout run at west London’s tiny Bush, the two-actor show moves in November for 12 weeks to the West End’s Comedy Theater. And though their approach might seem just a tad too English — think Monty Python crossed with the all-male “Travels With My Aunt” — an American stand somewhere or other cannot be ruled out. When it comes to things royal, the world is your stage, as Diana of all people knew.
The play covers the royal couple’s shifting accord, from courtship through to separation and beyond, and it doesn’t back away from citing James Hewitt and Camilla, among others, more or less by name.
And while both Barlow and colleague John Ramm play a host of characters, Princes William and Harry included, Barlow’s drolly bespectacled Dingle (he’s like a younger Edward Fox) mostly presents a stiff-backed Charles to the hilariously downmarket Diana of Ramm’s Raymond Box, who is as sincere as he/she is unalluringly attired and wigged. (“See you there then,” is this Diana’s hearty remark prior to the wedding.)
Key incidents from real life are briefly reprised, from the fire at Windsor Castle through to Diana’s famous “Panorama” interview, while certain imagined scenarios have a special piquancy. Wearing the tackiest shoes imaginable, Ramm’s Diana is never more endearing than when reveling in the tea- and coffee-making facilities on offer in the royal bedroom.
In his schoolmasterly guise as Dingle, Barlow has his own field day leading the audience in three separate cheering sections to applaud the royal nuptials: Those fearful of group participation stand forewarned, especially since Dingle doesn’t tolerate mispronunciation.
Is “Love Upon the Throne” anything more than a clever sketch staged in the coziest of venues, here reconfigured as a mock-plush throne room by designer Francis O’Connor? (The West End transfer will be hard-pressed to match the audience-friendly intimacy of the Bush.)
It’s the show’s emotional affect, perhaps surprisingly, that sets it apart. There’s something sweetly inventive about Prince William explaining to Harry their parents’ separation in train language that his younger brother will comprehend. (“What about all the little carriages … ?” comes the reply.)
The royals’ lapsed coupledom is neatly contrasted with the teamwork of the performers, who toy during the show with going their separate ways only to discover that, professionally speaking, they need each other. What didn’t work at the palace at least has its day onstage in a gently poignant comic portrait of the joys and woes of sharing that ultimately makes for singular theater.