The last time I had to visit the Duchess Theatre it was to review a musical play called ‘Behind The iron Mask’, which unfortunately was a disastrous reworking of ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ by Alexandre Dumas. The fault with that production lay in the unlikely and contrived plot, rather than the quality of the singing (though the songs themselves also left much to be desired). You might imagine, then, my trepidation at the thought of visiting the Duchess again to see a comedy based on the story of a woman who, even though she could not sing in tune, insisted on forcing her vocal renditions on the bemused citizens of New York during the 1940s. However, the comparison between ‘Behind The Iron Mask’ and ‘Glorious’ really ends with the fact that they both contain musical numbers. Because ‘Glorious’ is, to quote a line from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a ‘horse of a different colour’ (and there’s more relevance to that quote than you might imagine).
Great plays and films are always produced from great stories and/ or great characters. To find a great story, you either have to dredge them up from the depths of your mind, or find one from real life. And let’s face it, most of the ‘true’ stories have already been ‘done to death’. But not so with the story of ‘Glorious’, which is based on the real life of Florence Foster Jenkins. I have to confess that I had never heard of this American lady before I started doing my usual research prior to attending the performance. But what a character this woman was, and what a great story she wrote for herself!
Florence Foster Jenkins’ claim to fame wasn’t that she couldn’t sing (which is what many critics say of her) - indeed she could sing, and frequently did. However, she just couldn’t sing in tune – at least, not most of the time. Aided and abetted by her pianist (with the unlikely name of Cosme McMoon), and a devoted following of friends and admirers, Foster Jenkins performed - or ‘butchered’ as critics of the day might have put it – many of the great works from the classical vocal repertoire.
Known as the ‘First Lady of the sliding scale’, Foster Jenkins made several recordings at the ‘Melotone’ Studios (an almost absurd name given the nature of her singing). And if you search for her recordings on sites of major Internet book and audio retailers, you’ll come up with several selections on CD, some with hilarious titles such as ‘Murder on the High Cs’.
The writer, Peter Quilter, found the process of researching ‘the Diva of Din’ rather difficult since there was little written about her in books, for example. However, by digging around in the Library of Congress he came up with enough material to give him the bones of a plot, which he’s embellished sympathetically and, I think, in keeping with the character herself. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a deep or earth-shattering script. But it does provide what can only be described as the perfect vehicle for the very considerable talents of Maureen Lipman (who most definitely can sing in tune). So much so, that it’s hard to imagine that Quiter didn’t ‘see’ Lipman in the part as he was writing the script.
The play begins in New York in 1944, as ‘Madame’ Jenkins (as she was known to all her confidantes) is interviewing her new pianist, Cosme. Madam is already well into her singing ‘career’ having used the money left by her father to fund recitals, recordings, her bizarre and excessively camp costumes, as well as her accompanist. As the play progresses, we follow Madame through a recording at ‘Melotone studios’, an annual bash she organises – weeding-out potential ‘critics’ by interviewing all attendees in person, and her eventual appearance at a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall (yes, I did say Carnegie, and I mean THE Carnegie Hall, New York) where she played in 1944 to a packed house of 3,000 people. In fact the performance could easily have been sold-out several times over by all accounts.
Regular readers will know that I have a slight (SLIGHT) tendency to mention Margaret Thatcher from time-to-time. And I must do so again, even at the risk of being labelled ‘obsessive’. Because when Maureen Lipman first appears on stage, I swear she walks in exactly the same way as ‘The Iron Lady’. Knowing Lipman’s obsessive preparation, I’d be amazed if is this entirely coincidental. And, since Lipman appears to be wearing padding in her lower rear, it accentuates the comparison with Thatcher. But even if my assumption is totally wrong, the walk is almost perfect – it defines a woman who knows where she’s going and won’t let anything stop her from getting there.
One of Lipman’s many qualities is her superb comic timing, which really has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. She has a sixth sense about when to pause just a little to let the audience react, and is then able to milk the reaction without wringing it from us, or delaying the flow of delivery. And in this role, Lipman reigns supreme – a quite superb performance from a very fine actor.
But the real treat of Lipman’s performance, is to be found in her singing. Of course, for an accomplished singer, it’s asking a lot to sing out of tune. And not only that, but to sing out of tune in such a way that it is funny, rather than just a ‘din’. And Lipman succeeds in this flawlessly. She sings three complete songs – and each had the audience in hysterics. A virtuoso performance if ever there was one.
Lipman receives great support from all the cast: Barrie Ingham as her boyfriend, Janie Booth as her independent minded Mexican housekeeper/ cook, Maria, and Josie Kidd as her friend and most ardent admirer, Dorothy. And William Oxborrow, as Cosme McMoon deserves a special mention as Madame’s pianist. He struck just the right tone between fey wit, and worldly realist.
I suspect that if ‘Madame’ Jenkins were alive today, she would be thrilled that someone had taken the trouble to produce a play recognising her vocal ‘triumphs’. But the play really isn’t about singing. It’s about an extraordinary woman who had the guts to follow her dream, and managed to entertain a lot of people (Cole Porter and other notaries among them) along the way. Not a bad epitaph.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "If not exactly glorious, it is pretty entertaining." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Witty, handsome production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Delightful and often blissfully funny new play." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "affable, and often very funny."
A Review by one of our readers Gary Mack
Mon 3 April 2006
This new comedy play by Peter Quilter is set in New York the year 1944, as the curtain rises we are in the living room of 'Florence Foster Jenkins' a soprano eccentric who squeezes the notes out to at first, an unwilling and unsuspecting audience. Strangely loved by close friends and audiences who laugh at Florence's efforts to perform, however her commitment to perform and to ignore the critics makes her more determined.
The cast of this 'glorious' play is led by Maureen Lipman who puts in a wonderful comic performance as 'Florence Foster Jenkins' she truly captures the essence of 'Florence' which is simply pure entertainment at its best! Her sharp performance is totally matched by other cast members all of which deserve much praise Janie Booth as the manic Mexican house keeper Maria, Barrie Ingham as St. Clair the sophisticated out of work actor, Josie Kidd as Dorothy gives an excellent performance, William Oxborrow as Cosme McMoon employed as the pianist and plays the role with a special coolness, finally Lolly Susi plays the small but ruthless role of Mrs Verindah-Gedge who when making her entrance attacks Florence Foster Jenkins performance!
The entire play is a delightfully uplifting and enchanting piece, perfectly performed and one I would certainly recommend.