A commanding portrayal of a tragic, overlooked and neglected princess

A scene from Princess Undone at Eastbourne's Devonshire Park Theatre

A scene from Princess Undone at Eastbourne's Devonshire Park Theatre

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Eastbourne has a royal visitor this week, with Stephanie Beacham gracing the Devonshire Park stage as Princess Margaret, in an intriguing Evergreen Theatre production of A Princess Undone.

The clue is in the title. Most of Tuesday’s admirably full opening-night audience will have known the life story already, or at least the public version of it. Miss Beacham’s is a fascinating portrayal of a complex and quite tragic character. While Elizabeth rises to the greatness thrust upon her, Margaret, the overlooked, even neglected younger sister, must reconcile public persona with private turbulence.

On a quite sumptuous set with a regal feel - Margaret’s Kensington Palace apartment - Beacham has total command of the character, switching brilliantly between royal-personage mode and insecure, vulnerable private person.

She can be caustic, defiantly irreverent, world-weary, tearfully fragile. She can skilfully field diplomatic questions and she can kick off her shoes and twist to Desmond Dekker.

It is a consummate study in flawed royalty. Richard Stirling, director as well as writer, has created a literate, elegant script threaded with surprising humour, as well as sudden moments of devastating pathos. Its weakness is in the frequent wilfully oblique references to the back-stories. Charles and Diana we knew about, but there are too many royal in-jokes. A fling with Randy Andy? and a Kray Twins reference tossed provocatively sideways at the audience?

The unannounced arrival of a young friend of Margaret’s son Viscount Linley - played with likeabe panache by Harry Livingstone - is no more than a slightly baffling distraction, and only on the very point of the interval do matters take a sudden dramatic turn: an unwelcome old friend from the past threatens to shatter the cut-glass of Margaret’s world. But dramatic now teeters on the edge of melodramatic, for the new intruder John Bindon is a former gangster and thoroughly unsavoury character from Margaret’s past. Bindon’s part, a bit underwritten and cliched, is nonetheless skilfully handled. Not an unmissable show, but a thought-provoking and involving piece of theatre.

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