The most bizarre night of theatre I’ve ever experienced began when I arrived at the Eventim Apollo to be greeted with a neon sign for “Diana in Concert”. Had the ill-advised Ghost Diana escaped from The Crown for one last gig? No, this was just the latest incarnation of the tasteless Broadway flop Diana The Musical, which horrified international viewers when Netflix streamed it in 2021.
Written by Americans Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, this soapy bio-musical is still objectively terrible. It has a derivative 80s rock score, and the lyrics are so risible they make you want to crawl under your seat – whether an AIDS patient proclaiming, “I may be unwell / But I’m handsome as hell”, or the paparazzi’s “Better than a Guinness, better than a w--k / Snatch a few pics, it’s money in the bank”. Although tragically we’ve lost Diana’s “Harry, my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none”.
Other casualties of this reworked one-night-only concert version, directed by Owen Horsley, include Barbara Cartland and Paul Burrell. Instead the role of Diana has been expanded, and split in two: now she narrates as her naïve younger self drifts into a doomed marriage, aka “the worst job in England”. Don’t expect any new psychological depth, though; nor have the writers bothered to remove rogue Americanisms like the People’s Princess wishing she could “sock” Camilla.
Instead, by far the biggest change is the response: this British audience treated it as wildly camp panto. Superfans ironically cheered their favourite bad lines, such as Diana’s “Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio!”, but fully 3,000 people howled with laughter at the preposterous writing, whooped Diana’s “f—k you dress”, and booed and hissed Camilla with the fervour of a mob. It felt like a cross between Rocky Horror and bear-baiting.
Taken on those terms, the show almost worked. The full choir and orchestra bolstered the bombastic material, although this concert was plagued with sound and lighting issues. Kerry Ellis is such a rock-star performer that her Diana became a kickass heroine, but it made Maiya Quansah-Breed’s wide-eyed younger version even more drippy by comparison.
Denise Welch donned an off-brand wig and rumpled skirt suit to mimic the late Queen, and added some dodgy speak-singing, while Andy Coxon made Charles a prissy diva whose shouting matches with Diana belonged in Albert Square. Jay Perry was a hoot as a flamboyant lothario James Hewitt. Alice Fearn – who rivalled Ellis for vocal fireworks – overrode the hostility to make Camilla shrewd and admirably stoic. Alas, her showdown with her rival was framed by the prurient writers as a cat fight-meets-boxing match: “the Thrilla in Manilla but with Diana and Camilla”.
Could this crass, exploitative show possibly have a further life in the UK? Beyond its cult following, audiences would surely be baffled – or offended. It would need careful marketing along the lines of “Yes, we ARE in on the joke”. Even then, this doesn’t feel like a hit-in-waiting so much as a memorable Christmas turkey.
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