It’s hard not to be beguiled by the story of Jessie Matthews, a talent as home grown as the fruit her father sold on his Berwick Street Market stall. This likeable all-singing all-dancing biography gives credit where it’s due, to Jessie’s sister Rosie, for playing Higgins to her Eliza and sorting out her vowels as well as her career.
You get two Jessies for the price of one. Over My Shoulder opens in Buckingham Palace, no less, where Anne Rogers as Jessie is about to collect her OBE. As she rests her pins in an anteroom, she reflects on a life spent high-kicking her shapely legs. Cue Helen Baker as young Jessie (played by Jo Gibb in the West End), and the first of many nice shared moments as Jessie observes her younger self and can’t resist joining in.
Parallels between the lives of Rogers and Jessie resonate in the show. Both learnt to ‘talk proper’, found fame at an early age and made waves in America. Rogers famously created the role of Polly in The Boyfriend and played Eliza Doolittle on both sides of the Atlantic. Jessie became a huge star of stage and screen with her interpretations of the songs of great composers and lyricists, including Rodgers and Hart, Coward and Porter.
But there were downs as well as ups in the life of ‘the Dancing Divinity’, as Jessie was called. Richard Stirling’s book largely avoids sentimentality as he charts her troubled love life (she ‘stole’ her husband Sonnie Hale from his first actress wife Evelyn Laye and Jessie too suffered his infidelities), the sadness of a stillborn son and professional setbacks during and after the war.
Rogers retains star quality and she and director/choreographer Stewart Nicholls ensure that it shines, wisely saving the best till last when she proves she can still defy gravity. Rogers is generous to her younger incarnation, who sings and dances deliciously as the doe-eyed gamine ingenue on a steep learning curve through art and life.
There’s sensitive support from Abigail Langham as Rosie and Stephen Carlile, Michael Cotton, Christopher Dickins, Duncan Wisbey and Stock, confidently playing the chaps, dancing the routines and singing the melodies and harmonies with panache.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Mill at Sonning)