Theatre review: The Duchess is more than just the stage equivalent of a British tabloid

The British monarchy has seen their share of scandals in recent years, but long before the naked photos of a Royal’s wild Vegas weekend made headlines, one woman was able to topple a king.  In a dazzling performance, Pippa Johnstone brings that woman to life in the Theatre at UBC season opener, The Duchess: aka Wallis Simpson.

At the top of the play, Wallis Simpson (Johnstone) declares: “let’s get wicked” and indeed they do as director Sarah Rogers takes her cast deep into playwright Linda Griffith’s deliciously wild view of the American divorcee who would be queen.

In her final year of her BFA program at UBC, Pippa Johnstone is perfectly balanced as the ambitious and tormented Simpson providing a mirror of British society at the time that was both appalled by and attracted to the fairytale notion of a commoner becoming queen.  Johnstone works both sides of the equation with equal finesse, providing a layered and complicated Simpson.

Alexander Keurvorst, Kenton Klassen and Pippa Johnstone in the Theatre at UBC production of The Duchess. Photo by Nancii Bernard.
Alexander Keurvorst, Kenton Klassen & Pippa Johnstone in The Duchess: aka Wallis Simpson. Photo by Nancii Bernard.

While Johnstone leads the way, she is helped immensely by Alexander Keurvorst in the role of Noel Coward.  As narrator and confidante to Simpson, director Rodgers gets even more inventive by having Keurvorst sing and play (a triple threat on piano, saxophone and ukulele) a number of Coward’s songs from the era.

As the man who would not be king, Kenton Klassen brings a suitable naivety to the role of Edward, ensuring that the story remains focused on Simpson.  At times a tad milquetoast, it does make for some hilarious scenes in the couple’s bed chamber.

The rest of this cast is solid but at times suffers from crossing a line into caricatures that don’t always jive with the more realistic portrayals of the leads; cues could be taken from Joel Garner who never crosses that line in his multiple roles.  Accents are problematic at times, as are a few moments where the audience laughter is unintentional.

Michael Bock brings a delightful art-deco feel to his set design with his moveable set piece a suitable metaphor for the isolation that Wallis and Edward msut face.  Miriam Thom provides wonderful contrasts in her costume designs, with the veils used by Simpson’s “jewels” a nice whimsy.

By effectively blurring the lines between fact and fiction, combined with Johnstone’s performance and Rodgers’ vision, this twisted history lesson is more than just the stage equivalent of a British tabloid.

4 Out of 5 Stars The Duchess: aka Wallis Simpson

By Linda Griffiths.  Directed by Sarah Rodgers.  A Theatre at UBC production.  On stage at the UBC Telus Studio Theatre through October 6, 2012.  Visit http://www.theatre.ubc.ca for tickets and information.

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