Back in 1986, Sarah Ferguson (the Duchess of York) and Princess Diana were arrested at Fergie’s hen do prior to her wedding to Prince Andrew. Okay, so things didn’t work out well for either Fergie, Diana or Andrew in the years that followed. But at the time: “It was the best fun!”, Ms Ferguson recalled to American daytime TV chat show host Kelly Clarkson; “we were put in a police van and driven down The Mall until one of the policemen recognised Diana. He was so shocked he couldn’t believe it and said, ‘Oh my heavens, it’s the Princess of Wales!’ Honestly, it was like a scene from Roman Holiday…”
Indeed, the life of a princess in 1986 was probably still far closer to the life of fictional young Crown Princess Ann (as depicted by Audrey Hepburn in William Wyler’s super-glam 1953 big screen rom-com) than it is for a young royal today; if Wyler’s Ann had any idea of just how problematic being a princess would become, the prospect of tossing her crown into the Trevi Fountain and permanently shacking up with a handsome young journalist in Rome would have been an even more attractive option than it already (almost) proved to be. Anyway!
For those who don’t know the details of the Roman Holiday package, this is how it rolls: the princess is on a tightly-scheduled tour of post-war Europe doing the monotonous royal meet’n’greet thing at every turn. But on the evening before a press conference in Rome, Ann has had enough of all the princess-related protocol and breaks free from her duties to take herself off for a night on the town. Young American expat reporter Joe finds Ann collapsed on a park bench and takes her to his tiny apartment to recover. At this point, Joe doesn’t know that Ann is a world famous princess-gone-awol, and Ann has no idea that Joe is a tabloid journalist. As the truth dawns on Joe, though… has he found himself a big story payday hungover and snuggled up in his big stripy pyjamas?
Jeremy Sams’ brand new reworking of this delightfully frothy love story (featuring selected songs by Cole Porter, cleverly woven in at appropriate moments) doesn’t attempt to embroider any ‘knowing’ references to the contemporary relationship between celebrity royals and their tabloid adversaries, opting instead to max out on unadulterated, nostalgic feel good vibes in the best old-fashioned way; there’s the odd little chuckle in the audience when the princess is making speeches about the importance of European unity, but other than that we’re deeply entrenched in 1950s Rome, our senses thoroughly indulged in all the stylised glamour of the era.
Rebecca Collingwood is a perfectly pretty privileged princess, all clipped British vowels and an innate but innocent sense of entitlement. As Joe, Michael D Xavier is her perfect, real-life principled prince, chivalrous, charming and chic. It helps (in musical theatre terms, at least) that both have the kind of confident vocal ranges that effortlessly carry a collection of Cole Porter’s crisp, artfully witty/mega-melancholic greatest hits along with the necessary clarity of expression to give those often emotive lyrics authentic, heartfelt meaning, Xavier’s achingly lovelorn Night and Day in particular proving to be a showstopping tearjerker towards the end of the second half.
But if the production relies on the true meaning of ensemble to bring the whole, glorious Gelato together, the fast-paced, beautifully-timed roll call of charismatic supporting characters don’t miss a beat, supported by divine dance routines courtesy of Matt Cole/Jane McMurtrie’s super-slick choreography, soaring instrumentals led by Chris Walker’s (live) orchestra and Francis O’Connor’s pristine vintage costumes.
It could be said that, given how Rome itself – let alone that iconic scene involving a thrilling, high-speed Vespa chase around the city’s landmarks – was a superstar of the original film, it’s a little bit surprising that sets and scenes in this production remain pretty static and nowhere near as big on the ‘quintessential Rome backdrop’ vibe that we may expect. But hey, we’re on pure escapism territory here, and Roman Holiday offers us the opportunity to escape from such nitpicking and instead immerse ourselves in a vibrant, beautifully-produced, thoroughly uplifting romance laden with a hefty dollop of la dolce vita.