Portraying a beloved public figure is a risk for any actor but when it comes to Princess Diana, it seems like a poisoned chalice. There have been several soapy TV versions of her sadly short life, featuring actresses looking coy, and cocking their head to one side (a big screen version featuring Naomi Watts received the critical equivalent of a Jacobean dismemberment).
With barely a handful of TV credits to her name, newcomer Emma Corrin probably had nothing to lose when she accepted the role in Season 4 of The Crown (her highest profile gig before this was Batman prequel Pennyworth, as the girlfriend of tough guy Alfred). But Corrin’s portrayal has been universally acclaimed for its nuance and sensitivity, earning her a Golden Globe award in the process. All the meaty stuff is due in Season 5 (which is apparently the last): tabloid scandals, marital strife, charitable work, waltzing with John Travolta, and a deadly, tragic car accident. Given Corrin is in her mid-twenties, ageing up clearly wouldn’t be a big deal but bizarrely, The Crown producers have chosen to recast, with the frighteningly tall Elizabeth Debicki taking over the part. Still, Corrin probably has enough offers coming her way, and new play Anna X is the ideal showcase for her considerable talents.
Presented by Sonia Friedman as part of the West End ‘Re:Emergence’ season, Anna X is written by Joseph Charlton and directed with zest and flair by Daniel Raggett. The piece is loosely ‘inspired’ by the true story of fake German heiress Anna Sorokin, who changed her name to Anna Delvey, and defrauded banks, hotels and wealthy acquaintances of tens of thousands of dollars. At the centre of this remarkably detailed con was a glossy 80 page prospectus designed to attract art lovers and investors to the phony ‘Anna Delvey Foundation.’ Sorokin showed little remorse in court, and initially displayed a disturbing sense of entitlement. She was released from prison earlier this year for good behaviour, after serving four years. But clearly crime does pay, in some instances; Netflix gave her $320,000 for the rights to her story – in development, and potentially starring Margot Robbie – which is more money than Sorokin originally scammed (it’s important to mention Sorokin has now repaid back all her ‘investors.’)
‘Anna 2.0’ would have been a good alternative title, but the X is there for a reason. Writer Charlton is less interested in the mechanics of fraud, and more in psychological motivation. In fact, Anna is a brand rather than a fully rounded person – albeit a charming, entertaining brand.
Raggett gets things off to a thrilling start with a nightclub dance scene where the muffled dialogue is compensated by a series of neon sub-titles. ‘I’m on Trump’, shouts Anna to Ariel, the boy she’s just met (Nabhaan Rizwan from the BBC1 series Informer), one of many sharp lines in the witty script. Not unlike ‘cake’ – the non-existent Brasseye drug – ‘Trump’ is an orange tab for narcissists, a temporary escape from their core emptiness.
Rising start-up entrepreneur Ariel is the perfect mark, with access to an addictive world of front row fashion shows, private viewings and endless parties. The inclusion of the song ‘Dream Baby Dream’ by Suicide is an ironic choice: the American dream has always been a sham, a trap for the feeble minded. The rise of social media has deepened the fault lines of failure many people feel. But is the answer within, or out there? With Anna, there’s no time for introspection, and the buzz of New York City life is the tipping point (this story wouldn’t play half as well if it was set, say, in Northampton). ‘No one ever gives up their past’, explains Anna to Ariel, who struggles valiantly to get past her carefully maintained defences. Romance is a game, a means to an end; her manipulative behaviour grows increasingly desperate as the stakes get higher.
A big factor in this show’s success is the ingenious set and video design by Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden, which is incredibly sophisticated; the pin sharp projections – moving from night time cityscapes, to apartments and hotel rooms – are possibly the best I’ve ever seen on stage. Lighting designers never get mentioned in reviews so another round of applause for Jessica Hung Han Yun for her expertly fluid scene changes.
Corrin and Rizwan are both terrific, though the technical razzle-dazzle of Anna X occasionally threatens to overwhelm the human element. Raggett is smart enough to realise a change of pace is needed, and strips things down to the basics in the final scene, opening a space for vulnerability: its two characters in prison having an honest, real connection.
The cavernous Lyric theatre is too large a space for an intimate two hander like this, but given this is the first production I’ve witnessed in over 18 months, that’s a minor quibble. Anna X is a cool and refreshing drink after a very long drought.
Anna X is at The Lowry from 11-14 August 2021.