If you liked “Annabelle Dickson: The Musical” – the sequence from the satirical series Summer Heights High that tells the story of a high school student who died of a drug overdose – you’ll love Netflix’s new special. Diana: The Musical is the all-singing, all-dancing new telling of the life of Princess Diana, a story that somehow has not yet been milked quite enough (we have already had it pumped intravenously in the latest series of The Crown, and a biopic starring Kristen Stewart is forthcoming).
The show was supposed to premier on Broadway last year but was prevented from doing so by the pandemic: this is a recorded version of the show with no audience, broadcast on Netflix in advance of its live opening later this month. If it wasn’t bad enough that what is ultimately a tragedy – one that concerns several people who are still very much alive and well – is still being squeezed for any remaining juice, this one is in the worst of all forms: musical theatre.
If Diana: The Musical was satire, it would be comedy genius. There is a jazz hands chorus solemnly dressed in royal staff garb, who interject with coy asides at every available opportunity. There’s a moment of respite from the thick, saccharine harmonies when Charles and Diana go to a concert to hear the Bach Cello Suites – alas, Bach is swiftly transformed into a cloying trifle of musical theatre cliché, and the G major prelude turns into a glam rock number. (Similarly, when dialogue offers a few seconds of peace, you can bet someone will soon begin another nonsensical belt.) There are bizarre attempts to bring Diana’s story – beloved as she is by millennials – into 2021, but they manifest as cringeworthy anachronisms. In this particular Bach mashup, Diana longs for Charles to “get funkadelic”, and when Diana dances at the ballet, the chorus tell us that “every move was on point”. Later, in a raw pre-divorce ballad, she intones knowingly: “Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio.”
Who on this bloody Earth is this sodding show for? Uncynical Tarot readers? Sassy girl bosses? Ironic hipsters? The swear words give it away: Americans. Charles – the Prince of Wales! – says “goddammit” and Diana says she’s a “kindergarten” teacher, more than once, yet in their most vicious, painful arguments they seem only able to call each other “bloody sods”. Is this how we are viewed from the other side of the Atlantic? The Queen is wearing eyeliner and Camilla Parker-Bowles inexplicably has incorporated the word “cuddle” into her vocabulary. America is touted as the land where everyone can express their feelings – Diana would fit right in, says the Queen, ooh, burn! – yet Parker-Bowles is reduced to a quivering wreck over the “lifetime of Sundays” she would like to spend with the haughty Charles, boo, hiss.
I began to weep with laughter when Diana coos “Harry, my ginger-haired son” into his cot, choked on my own tongue when the Queen transforms into a sort of Widow Twankey Barbara Cartland (Diana’s favourite romance author), and fell off my chair when a whole number is dedicated to James Hewitt – who appears topless, bestride a horse, the chorus simply screaming his name in impeccably in-tune song over and over again.
It seems unbelievable that any of these talented people manage to keep a straight face at literally any point during this two-hour pantomime. How do they sing these lines with passion and fire? “Don’t act like a TART, Diana,” says Charles, while the paparazzi chorus hits us in the first 15 minutes with probably the worst line in the history of theatre: getting a snap of Lady Di is “better than a Guinness, better than a wank”.
In Summer Heights High we sadly never witness Mr G’s seminal work, Tsunamarama – the story of the 2004 Tsunami tragedy set to the music of Bananarama. Yet I suspect Diana: The Musical is on a par. Genuine tragedies are reduced to crunchy harmonies – the chorus genuinely sings “suicide attempts” and “bulimia” to create background atmosphere, and among the final sequence post-car crash, I catch the line, among headlines transformed into song, “The Princess of Wales walks through a minefield in Angola”. I have aged 17 years in an hour and 57 minutes. If you, too, would like to spend these precious seconds of your life watching something akin to Dick Van Dyke orating a Daily Mail article as a pantomime dame, go ahead and tune right in.