A Princess Undone/Malvern Theatres

THE early 1990s were not a good time for the British monarchy.

The Queen’s sister Princess Margaret had for years been the subject of much speculation in the tabloids, at one stage being branded by republican members of Parliament as ‘a royal parasite’ and ‘a floosie’.

And then, to make matters even worse – just as Margaret’s notoriety was just about ceasing to make banner headlines – along comes a new crop of royals to upset the regal applecart all over again.

It is against this backdrop that Richard Stirling’s intriguing play is set. Margaret is holed up in Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s residence, and thumbing through some old press cuttings, some of which relate to her ill-fated love affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend.

But there are clearly more serious things to worry about, which is why she summons to her palatial crash pad ex-lover John Bindon, a former gangster and actor.

We first meet Margaret in the opening scene when she bursts through the oak doors to the drawing room at Clarence House with all the force of a British three-decker crashing into the French battle line at Trafalgar.

Although wreathed in cigarette rather than cannon smoke, she doesn’t hesitate to deliver broadsides in the direction of her mother’s gay butler Billy Tallon, played with a delicious blend of servility and camp insolence by David Benson.

They continually snipe at each other, the butler frequently behaving in a way that would once have sent him to the scaffold – yes, I’ve been watching Gunpowder, too.

Neither is prepared to give away. Every mortal thing becomes an argument, the pair of them at times bickering like an old married couple rather than a royal mistress routinely admonishing an underling.

There are indeed some epic verbal duels here, some of them trivial in the extreme, but others of great relevance, such as those concerning the more controversial aspects of the hedonistic princess’s lifestyle.

Food is eventually ordered but hardly eaten. Margaret’s main diet seems to consist of cigarettes and spirits… gin or whisky, it hardly matters as long as that cut glass tumbler is constantly more than half full.

But then, suddenly emerging into this bar room fug, comes Tristan Peel (Giles Cooper), a school friend of HRH’s son Viscount Linley. He’s a man on a mission, but the princess soon gets the measure of him. It rather looks as if she will soon be having him for breakfast, possibly the only meal that she’ll be consuming that day.

Indeed, for a brief moment it does appear as if Margaret will be adding yet another notch to her severely scarred bedpost. But no, for she has bigger fish to fry, in this case a menacing cruising shark by the name of John Bindon.

Bindon (Charles Daish) is a spectacularly unsavoury character, a chancer whose main claim to fame revolves around a balancing act involving beer mugs and an intimate part of his anatomy.

This is a case of top totty meeting a bit of East End rough, her manner as haughtily correct as his is monosyllabically crude and violent. The exchanges are indeed remarkable, the behaviour of both of them perhaps shattering a few illusions still faithfully held by a considerable section of the populace.

This is a relentlessly entertaining and at times disturbing play. Harriet Thorpe is magnificent as Margaret, sailing across the stage with her hair piled high and billowing in the winds of change, her nose in the air, and with her right to command and rule never in doubt.

A Princess Undone runs until Saturday (November 4) and is a gripping, highly entertaining piece of theatre.

John Phillpott