The Duchess Theatre may be under new ownership (See News, 11 Jul 2005), but it is business as usual in the tunelessness stakes that famously afflicted the last tenant here, Behind the Iron Mask. Of course, tunelessness is not merely the offence here - it's also the defence. The subject is Florence Foster Jenkins, the real-life "dire diva of din" and "first lady of the sliding scale" as she was variously billed in the 1940s when she not only recorded albums of her coloratura soprano atrocities but also even sold out Carnegie Hall.
Foster Jenkins is obviously a rich source of inspiration. Another play, called Souvenir, is now on Broadway, while Glorious! is the third treatment I've seen about the singer on British shores - Jean Boht’s solo show Viva La Diva was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2001, while last year Valda Aviks starred in When Florence Met Isadora at the fringe Rosemary Branch. The production budgets for both of those earlier British plays put together probably didn't stretch as far as covering the costumes alone in Glorious!, but they were far more successful (and mercifully briefer) at catching a sense of Foster Jenkins’ delusional mission to perform against all the odds of the extremely limited gifts that nature had bestowed on her.
Peter Quilter's take here is a very pedestrian plod through the singer’s offstage as well as onstage life, from the hiring of an accompanist and a recording session to the annual private soiree she gave to an invited audience, every member of whom was personally vetted by her before they were allowed a ticket to attend, before she went public and sold out Carnegie Hall in what could be called an "unqualified triumph" in every sense.
Maureen Lipman - who is brilliant at embodying eccentric personalities and scored one of her greatest-ever personal triumphs with Re:Joyce, a one-woman show about Joyce Grenfell - seems to be channelling another late, great American comic performer, Ruth Draper, in her realisation of Foster Jenkins here. But since the script fails to colour her in sufficiently bright comic colours, Lipman resorts too often to the shtick that’s also one of her performance trademarks, whether it be business with a neck scarf or angel wings.
Around her larger-than-life personality, Quilter also assembles a small supporting cast of comic caricatures - the mad Mexican maid (Janie Booth), the doting English gent partner (Barrie Ingham), the dog-loving acolyte (Josie Kidd), the gay pianist (William Oxborrow) - that stall the action rather than drive it.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from September 2005 and this production’s original run at Birmingham Rep.
Florence Foster Jenkins was, literally, an unqualified success; the First Lady of the Sliding Scale, hailed the worst singer in the world. So the inherent problem in writing a play about her is, quite simply, that the audience can’t wait to hear her monstrous voice sing.
And though Maureen Lipman is a delight as she squawks, trills, screeches and shrieks her way through three well-loved operatic arias, unfortunately it’s playwright Peter Quilter who strikes all the duff notes.
He admits in his programme notes that very little is known about the real Jenkins. And sure enough, a quick internet search not only affirmed everything revealed in the play, but also showed up a host of quotes about her which provide some of the best and funniest dialogue in the piece. Perhaps Jenkins, with her eccentric personality and absolute belief in her talents as a diva, would have fared better as the subject of a Pam Gems-style drama to counter the hilarity of her singing performance.
But Quilter’s “heartwarming comedy about the worst singer in the world” is packed with excruciatingly unfunny gags, has no depth of character and is woefully short of any kind of substance. I found myself restless to hear the next abysmal song.
Of course, once the aural hunger is sated (a feeling akin to watching the worst of the Pop Idol contestants), with Strauss’ “Adele’s Laughing Song”, at the end of act one, one wanders out into the interval wondering what else is there? Basically, a funeral, and two more singing performances - one at Jenkins’ annual Ritz-Carlton private concert (including her infamous “Clavelitos” Latin routine in which she donned a Spanish outfit and threw flowers into the audience), and her final triumph, a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
The audience cheers and laughs until tears roll down their cheeks, but the indomitable coluratura Jenkins, now aged 76, holds them until the end, with Lipman hilariously massacring Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night”.
Much is the same with the play. You stay for the performances rather than the writing. There’s excellent work from William Oxborrow as the dry-witted pianist Cosme and Janie Booth as an equally devoted madcap maid Maria. But it's a shame that where Jenkins made a career out of unwittingly butchering good material, the hard-working ensemble has to battle valiantly to make a silk purse from Quilter’s sow’s ear.
The play ends on a sentimental yet strangely satisfying note, but despite the bravura performance, like Jenkins’ singing it all falls a bit flat.