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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Bruce Dessau

Peter Smith’s Diana at Soho Theatre review: New York cabaret star’s show is lost in translation

It is rarely a good sign when a performer comes on at the start to give some background about what we are about to see. But thank goodness Peter Smith did, otherwise I’d have had no idea what this wilfully meandering piece of performance art/cabaret was about.

While the title refers to Diana, the late Princess of Wales, her role feels vague. Smith, who is popular on the New York cabaret scene, talks at the outset about being obsessed with Diana, finally hearing her voice when watching Martin Bashir’s now-infamous interview.

Apparently there was a version of this show in which Smith lipsynched to clips, which might have given more context. No such luck here. Instead Diana barely gets a word in. Smith draws on just a few things she said, most notably that she would have liked to have been a dancer. Smith moves around the stage lithely in various costumes and at one point humps the stage but is certainly not essaying an impression. Watch The Crown if that’s what you want.

This is more like a show by Smith about Smith, with repeated asides about Smith’s husband and children. Or maybe this is alluding to Diana’s family. It is never made clear. We are frustratingly left to work out far too much ourselves.

One watches hoping to grasp a thread, but it is hard to catch onto anything. There is talk about ego and love, our phone fixations and Elon Musk. There is talk of AIDS, which might have been a nod to Diana challenging HIV stigma. There is a suggestion that First World War soldiers might have been transgender because during warfare testosterone levels drop.

Mentions of bulimia, tunnels and conspiracy theories look promising for anyone hoping for something more tangible but they are not developed. Elton John, Boy George and Ghislaine Maxwell are namechecked. An anecdote about attending a Barbra Streisand concert is as much about Smith being there as it is about Streisand.

The monologue is punctuated by catchy songs which range from disco and electro, but this is not enough to make up for a lack of clarity. Smith is talented and charismatic, but something has been lost in translation. I really wanted to like this but Smith kept making it difficult. Things briefly come alive with a riff about the fragile dynamic between artiste and audience. This seemed to be a direct comment on the very performance I was witnessing. Who knows?

Soho Theatre has an excellent reputation for importing brilliant Americans, but not here. I’d say Peter Smith’s Diana peters out, but it barely gets going.

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