This very new play. Very new. Written in response to the Royal Wedding, Justin Butcher’s quick response comedy sounds like a great idea in theory. Take Anthony Hope Hawkins’s much-adapted 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda and update it to include the current Royal Family in a matter of a few weeks following the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, allowing for plenty of neat nods to the ceremony and the days leading up to it.
In practice – and, perhaps given the quick turnaround of the project, not surprisingly – it’s a patchy affair; occasionally satisfying but a bit of a mess. Taking its lead from the Victorian novel (though only loosely), The Prisoner of Windsor sees Prince William swap places with a Romanian gardener Romulus – a man who bares an uncanny resemblance to Wills thanks to Prince Philip’s extra-marital dalliances in Eastern Europe. Both prisoners in their own way – Wills trapped by a life of formality and Romulus threatened with deportation – they only truly find their voices in their new roles.
Voice, speech, and language are all key themes here. Butcher has Wills struck down with the same affliction that so dogged his grandfather ‘Bertie’ – as documented in The King’s Speech. Gripped by nerves, he becomes unable to say any words directly connected with the wedding, particularly those beginning with ‘w’ and most debilitating of all, the phrase “I will.” Enter an Aussie called Geoffrey who will attempt to cure the Prince in return for Australia becoming a republic…
Romulus meanwhile is a philosopher and rhetorical genius without an audience, until he uses his fine words to woo Kate on Wills’ behalf and, ultimately, step into the Prince’s shoes. Both John Sheerman as stammering Wills and Nick Malinowski as the learned Romulus give decent comic performers; it’s just a shame they don’t meet until what proves to be the much more enjoyable second half.
Having played host to a series of great comics recently including Bill Bailey, Frisky and Mannish and Colin Hoult, Leicester Square Theatre has a reputation for staging ‘funny’. So – with the venue itself having a hand in this production – it was reasonable to think that The Prisoner of Windsor would deliver on the laughs front. Unfortunately, this is isn’t the case, especially early on. The humour is pretty broad stuff with several jokes failing to land, although things do pick up a bit as the play takes on a more conventional farce set-up. This upward trajectory continues and the production ends on a relative high. The closing scenes take place during the wedding ceremony itself, and Butcher has real fun in allowing the audience to hear what Wills, Kate, the Queen and Prince Philip were “really” saying during those lengthy sermons.
It’s rough around the edges and probably not as funny as it needs to be, but it features some decent lead performances and while much of the set-up seems to have been planned before the wedding, there is enough material based on the events themselves to amuse; in fact this is the material that works best.