The Rosemary Branch Theatre has a mission: the creation of diverse theatre. This, combined with a remote, pub-based location in the depths of Islington, makes it an unlikely destination for the average theatregoer. Enter the surreal When Florence met Isadora.
The piece, penned by Judith Paris, is inspired by the lives of two real 1920s icons, both renowned for their distinctive approach to performing. Florence Foster Jenkins found fame late in life as the eccentric diva-cum-comedienne for her wealthy, influential peers. Isadora Duncan, perhaps better known, revolutionised modern dance through a lifetime of dedication, fuelled by personal loss.
Comparing these formidable women, who never actually met, makes for a curious dramatic premise. Keen to keep things light and amusing, the play sweeps over contemporary matters of American isolationism and anti-war sentiments, focusing primarily on character-based entertainment. Given that this is Paris’ third stage play, I’d expect something more assured, but this script feels underdeveloped and lacks subplot.
An experienced performer (most recently seen as the Crack Whore/Virgin Mary in Jerry Springer), Valda Aviks, dolled up in flamboyant costumes as Florence, steals the show. She manages to capture both the serious and obscure sides of this lovable entertainer. And her musical numbers are a real highlight. Strongly reminiscent of the original artiste, Aviks’ random, piercing notes and flawless sincerity evokes only the most genuine laughter.
Adele Anderson’s Isadora suffers a more heavy-handed portrayal. We must presume this is mainly due to Duncan’s troubled past. “She is intense, isn’t she?” quips Florence at one point. Oh boy, is she.
What ultimately lets this comedy drama down is lack of cohesion. Each woman, while dedicated to art, existed in her own world, convinced of her own individual brilliance. Director Matt Ryan seems unable to overcome this polarisation, and he makes little attempt to develop the few moments of tension in the script. The piece draws to a close with our icons taking over the stage like two pre-teen girls caught in a slapstick silent movie. In this instance, frantic commotion replaces soundless mime. Perhaps, one diva is enough.
It is worth watching When Florence met Isadora for the comic moments alone. And, for those not already in the know, you will learn something about two remarkable women over the course of the evening. However, inspiring as this should be, I’ll doubt you’ll want to know a single thing more once you leave.