Diana’s life from 1982 to 1997, in song.
“Has your torture finished,” enquired my 9 year old, an hour and a half into Diana: The Musical. Admittedly he veers to the dramatic — “what is the point of me being here,” he asked, aged 7, when I took him to see the film Cats — but only watched the first few minutes of Diana with me before summing up the show with: “that’s not like High School Musical or The Greatest Showman, when they sing only when something dramatic happens. This is just like, when someone wants to tell you something, she starts.”
“She” in this case is Jeanna De Waal, our Diana, who has a pleasant voice but adds no emotional depth across the near two hour running time, though she does get better as Diana becomes more confident. There’s none of the ethereal shyness that so captivated a nation, the fawn in the headlights; but she’s on surer ground when Diana discovers her steely backbone and stars arguing back with Charles. There’s still a mystifying lack of emotion though, appearing cheery when sent a jewelled necklace before her marriage, and then equally cheery when in bed ill later on.
Everyone in this has already been painted, in their real lives, as a pantomime character, and the production doesn’t try to inject any real feeling into it. The tone is off — it’s neither high camp, nor a thoughtful study of her life. Still, I won’t lie, I quite enjoyed it, and not entirely through my fingers.
Unlike my son, I’m not averse to a mostly-sung musical. The tunes are easy to hum along to, probably because they often sound derivative. Admittedly “This Is How Your People Dance” is pretty bad, and not helped by the early Di wig that makes the supposedly young and, compared to Charles anyway, hip Diana look so frumpy — in fact all the wigs look awful. I do love a rhyming couplet though, and in this respect it does not disappoint, unless you’re Shakespeare.
Diana: The Musical was meant to open on Broadway in 2020 but was put back due to COVID. This film of the production (directed by Christopher Ashley, written by Joe DePietro from his own book, with music by David Bryan) now appears before the revised Broadway launch. It’s out on Netflix, and I highly recommend putting the subtitles on to understand the full glory of the lyrics.
Ironically many will leave you speechless, from the paparazzi singing in “Snap, Click” that photographing her is “better than a wank” (to rhyme with “money in the bank”) to Diana at a classical music concert rhyming “rave and rant” with “give it up for Adam Ant” (I’m just sad they didn’t try to rhyme Bananarama with karma). Later on we get “Harry my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none”, which let’s be honest, sums up both him and the conflict between queenship and motherhood pretty well.
This is another option in the fairytale-that-wasn’t Diana genre, what with the last series of The Crown and Kristen Stewart in the upcoming Spencer. I haven’t seen Spencer yet, but I’m betting that not even Stewart’s Diana communing with the spirit of Anne Boleyn will compare with James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan) emerging from beneath the stage floor, bare-chested astride a mechanical horse, while a chorus of ’80s-clad sloanes shriek “James Hewitt!” while gyrating around classical pillars. Lest you don’t get the equine references (non-royal watchers, James Hewitt had an affair with Princess Di after she employed him to teach her to ride) he then sings “All your troubles cast aside, You’ll dismount satisfied.”
It’s jaw-dropping, though to be fair the British Royal Family do so many unbelievable things themselves that Diana: The Musical has to do a lot to jump its own shark. It almost succeeds, failing only because despite its bad taste it never quite has the courage of its convictions, even managing to downplay already larger-than-life characters. Hewitt is introduced on stage by Barbara Cartland, famous romance novelist and Diana’s step-grandmother. Poor Babs — whose public persona was approximately 33% flapping pink chiffon, 33% platinum waves and 33% lurid face paint — appears to have no eye make-up on at all. BC without caked-on sparkling eyeshadow is not just unlikely but unbelievable, like a sloane ranger without a string of pearls, or a British Royal who doesn’t look like they were born on the wrong side of the horse blanket. Standing at the edge of the stage she almost apologises for her lines putting words into someone’s mouth, representing a reticence that an audience can always spot. If we don’t feel confident in a director’s confidence, however wacky their vision, then everything falls down.
Still, Babs was one of my favourite aspects of this bizarre spectacle, and that the actress who plays her (Judy Kaye) also plays the Queen seems like trolling, so opposite are they. One in love with pink, a permanent “face” and love itself; the other devoted to tweed and the duty marriage. (It’s a very small cast, taking Charles’ much mooted slimmed down monarchy idea to heart, though it could have done with a Princess Margaret bitching from the wings.)
I quite liked the Chorus, playing either servants, party guests or those Hewitt stans, putting forward the realism of Diana’s life; and the journalists and photographers are properly mean and deriding. The costumes too are spot on, recognisable from now-iconic photographs: her red and white sheep jumper, the unflattering green maternity dress that was actually hiding her postnatal depression, the too-old-for-her blue engagement suit, that killer black dress when she went out on the town the night her husband went on TV to admit to adultery, and of course her massive wedding dress. They all look spot on in terms of detail (if ill-fitting) and, we now know, were telling her story long before *those* interviews.
Charles (Roe Hartrampf) looks very young (“that man looks like a big version of Tom Holland,” said my son), fittingly — considering the real Prince of Wales’ annoyance at his wife’s instant star power — fading into the background, though the Queen is suitably no nonsense.
Later in her life Diana becomes more of an activist, and her groundbreaking visit to meet Aids patients in hospital in London gets its own song (“Secrets and Lies”). It doesn’t work and comes off looking crass, partly because of how quickly the production skips merrily on.
The ending, after such a rush through her married and divorced life, is equally fast, as in one song she plans her future and dies. I never thought I’d say this, but it all finishes… too soon.
Diana: The Musical is currently streaming on Netflix