Netflix UK film review: Diana: The Musical
James R | On 03, Oct 2021
Director: Christopher Ashley
Cast: Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf, Erin Davie, Judy Kaye
Where to watch Diana: The Musical online in the UK: Netflix UK
Does it know? That’s the question that sits at the back of your mind while watching Diana: The Musical. The show, released worldwide on Netflix before its stage debut, is a gob-smackingly thoughtless translation of Princess Di’s life and death into Broadway showstopper – the least sensitive piece of musical theatre since Springtime for Hitler in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. That, of course, was a knowing pastiche, which begs the question of how self-aware Diana: The Musical really is – is it intended to be a send-up of the way in which her life and death were plastered unthinkingly over the UK media, a satirical commentary on the shallow devouring of every morsel of royal drama for salacious sensationalism? That question is perhaps answered about 6 minutes in, when the Queen (Judy Kaye) declares, “A royal wedding serves us well!” and the chorus line reply with un-ironic grins: “A fairy tale born in hell!” Things only get less subtle from there.
The musical follows Diana Spencer (Jeanna de Waal) as she is courted by Charles (Roe Hartrampf), eventually wedded and then trapped in a loveless marriage – leading to extramarital affairs and, ultimately, her tragic passing. It’s hard to know which bit is treated least tastefully. The portrayal of the British press as sleazy, trenchcoat-wearing monsters who cry out “Snap, click!” with every movement, the birth of Charles and Diana’s children (“I’m holding our son / Let me say jolly well done!”) or Diana’s affair with hunky horse rider James Hewitt (whose name, the eagle-eyed viewers will notice, rhymes with “do it”).
The book, by Joe DiPietro, is remarkably tin-eared, with the most obvious yet illogical rhymes driving the choice of words – almost aptly, it sounds like the lyrics were based entirely on headlines in The Sun. “There’s him, there’s her, yes sir, it’s a blur,” the ensemble lament as Charles’ relationship with Camilla (Erin Davie) looms large over Diana’s marriage, then almost immediately turn around and announce: “It’s the thriller from Manila with Diana and Camilla!” An early date, in which Charles takes Diana to a cello recital by Mstislav Rostropovich, sees her talk about how she’s rather listen to pop music and daydream about being Queen – an opportunity that composer Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan seizes to jump into Queen-style flourishes. “Maybe there’s a discotheque where the prince could hear some Prince and we’d all Funkadelic!” is an actual line that Princess Diana actually says out loud.
That jarringly bizarre number gives an insight into the thinking behind the project, which seems determined to portray her as an 80s pop princess rather than an actual human being. There are the occasional nods to the “the stories girls are taught to believe” and an acknowledgement that “fairy tales exist and this one has a twist”, but the naivety of the 19-year-old who got engaged to Prince Charles isn’t dwelled upon much beyond that – and, if anything, is twisted into a strange kind of fable of empowerment that rings about as true as the generic musical numbers.
Over 90 minutes, despite the genuine talent and commitment of the cast involved, the songs all blend together, united in their inability to drive forward the plot or bring depth to the characters. Diana is, most of all, a “pretty pretty girl in a pretty pretty dress”, and that surface-level obsession is emphasised by the cliched depiction of her visiting AIDS patients and even an entire number about her decision to wear a “f*** you” dress. Throughout all this, the presence of Paul Burrell as some kind of chipper fairytale godmother is mind-boggling.
The show was filmed in September 2020 without an audience, but you almost wish that Netflix had waited for the show’s Broadway debut to film it with a packed house – the only thing more fascinating than this stupefyingly bad spectacle is whether it would be lapped up by an American crowd or prompt knowing laughter. As it is, the result has to be seen to be believed – but unfortunately, that would involve seeing it.
Diana: The Musical is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.