Right in the heart of the West End of London is the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The cream facade has been rebuilt three times over four centuries and today it is the capital's oldest working theater and one whose history is closely entwined with the British royal family.
It was here in 1665 that King Charles II first spotted his mistress Nell Gwynne, making her debut. Later, two entrances to the grand staircase, known as the "king's side" and the "prince's side," had to be created after a falling-out between King George III and his son the Prince Regent, according to legend. And it was here, in 1800, that George III survived being shot at. (Not by the Prince Regent, I should add.)
This week the royals must have dreaded a different type of assassination attempt as Paul Burrell, the most famous butler since Jeeves, mounted the stage to launch a one-man show. Burrell, servant and confidant to Princess Diana, is scheduled to bring his act to the New York stage later this week.
In his book "A Royal Duty," Burrell had already revealed that Diana had a succession of nine secret boyfriends, and that she hadn't spoken to her mother for months before she died. But the biggest bombshell was that Diana had written to Burrell 10 months before her fatal accident alleging someone was plotting to kill her in a car crash (that "someone" was later revealed -- against Burrell's wishes -- to be Prince Charles). The book became a bestseller.
The same could not be said of Sunday night's performance. Burrell's publicist Siobhan O'Connor said she estimated 900 people were there. But with most of the theater roped off, it seemed more like a third of that number.
So perhaps Burrell's opening remark -- "How scary is this?" -- was justified. Dapper in dinner jacket and open-necked dress shirt, he began with a rapid resume of his life -- from a poor mining village in Yorkshire to the inner sanctum of the most famous princess in the world.
Whoops of laughter greeted his accurate if unkind impressions of Prince Charles and Princess Margaret, and he was keen to pass on useful etiquette tips (Queen Elizabeth never pours the milk into the teacup first; she always carries a spare pair of white gloves, and sees it as acceptable to reapply lipstick and powder after the meal although more extensive repairs should take place in the ladies' room).
For anyone who had read the book -- or seen Burrell's interview with Larry King -- there were few revelations in the scripted part of the show. But then that wasn't really the point. What everyone was there for was the question-and-answer session to follow. Hands shot up all over the auditorium.
Did Charles ever love Diana? (No.) Is Mohammed Al Fayed, father of Diana's last boyfriend, Dodi, right about his allegations of murder? (No.) Would Diana have gone back to Charles if he'd given up his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles? (Yes.) How much money are you making out of this? (Are you from the press?)
"I'm going to be very controversial," Burrell promised. "I don't think we will ever see King Charles III and Queen Camilla. I think the queen has been a fantastic monarch and I have nothing but admiration for her, but after she dies I think we will have to ask the people of this country what they want. . . . I think [Charles and Diana's son] William would make an excellent king."
Whether he was finally going to meet face-to-face with William (who has criticized Burrell's "betrayal" of his mother) he refused to confirm or deny.
But he gamely fielded all other questions, even when the mood turned hostile. One questioner sneeringly accused him of being less Diana's "rock," which he says she called him, and more like a stick of "Blackpool rock" -- a type of syrupy, sugary candy. Burrell took the hit without flinching.
Among those who had paid around $50 for a ticket were 80-year-old Oonagh Nolan, who had brought her friend Sister Rosita, a nun from Dublin, to see the show. Both are ardent Dianaphiles, and Nolan said they were there "because we want to have the courtesy of hearing what he has to say before forming opinions. He may be a good chap."
Afterward, they were satisfied they'd gotten their money's worth. "He answered all the questions," Nolan said. "What a lovely man he was. I can't believe that man who called him syrupy. But that's the British for you."
Not everyone was as enthusiastic. "I'm here because my girlfriend made me," Chris Milward, a computer systems analyst, said rather glumly.
And Sue Cordani, 44, was disappointed. "He was very polished and rehearsed but I don't think we got all the answers," she said. "What came across to me is that he was in love with Diana and can't let go."
Paul Burrell: In His Own Words is at Town Hall, 123 W. 43rd St., New York, at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.