Brief Encounter With ... Helena Blackman
What's the show about?
It's about the relationship between the famous writer and actor Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, an actress and star in the West End and on Broadway. Both were British. She was his very close friend - some say his muse - and someone he wrote plays and songs for and who he often performed with.
Noël & Gertie is a wonderful compilation of excerpts from Noël's plays Private Lives and Tonight at 8.30, songs, diary extracts and telegrams and tells the story of their special relationship. It was written by the author, broadcaster and theatre critic Sheridan Morley, whose best-known work was a biography of Noël Coward, A Talent to Amuse.
Noël & Gertie premiered in London in 1983, starring Simon Cadell and Joanna Lumley, and ran for nine years in the West End at the Comedy Theatre. In America, the 1960s model Twiggy (now best known for the M & S fashion adverts) played Gertrude.
Did you know much about Gertrude Lawrence before getting involved?
Very little, but I knew she was a rather famous actress who originated the role of Anna is Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King & I opposite Yul Brenner on Broadway.
How do you think she compares to the stage stars of today?
It's very difficult to tell. She was star of the stage rather then the screen because movies came later on in her career and when it did come she did very few films. It's been said that she didn't have the right look for the screen not being whatever was considered as conventionally beautiful and that her talent was lost in front of the camera. As a result we don't have many records of her speaking or performing.
She also didn't hold on to sentimental things like letters and telegrams the way Noël did, so we have to gauge her by those closest to her. The general consensus is that she was "stagey", a complete star, dripping with expensive jewellery, truthful, a brilliant actress and utterly famous... the fame being something that no longer necessarily accompanies the leading men and women of today's theatre world.
Why was her relationship with Coward so significant?
They were the Fred and Ginger of their generation and had they been born a bit later they arguably could have been. They epitomised an era of high style and elegance. But Noël and Gertie were no longer in their youth when movies really became popular, so they missed the boat as it were; they were born too soon really. They also had both world wars to contend with which changed and moved theatre in a different direction.
Your director and producer were behind the recent Parade at Southwark Playhouse. It seems that Fringe venues are taking the lead when it comes to musical revivals. Why do you think is this?
Fringe doesn't need to be commercial. As the theatre capacities aren't big enough, you can't make lots of money, and so there is arguably more freedom to take bigger risks with staging and cast sizes. As a result you can reinvent pieces of work that were judged flops in the West End or Broadway. Works including Parade, The Hired Man, Ragtime are great shows but were just too costly to be judged commercial success. Creatively I love working on the Fringe, I find it very challenging and extremely intense. It's an exciting world.
Are you still in touch with the other Maria contestants?
What have you got lined up next?
I have quite a few concert dates between now and in to the spring so watch this space... I'm also off to do panto. Last year I couldn't do a Christmas show because we were recording my album and I really missed the experience, so this year I shall be doing Snow White in Redditch.
Noël & Gertie continues at the Cockpit Theatre until 22 October. Box office: 020 7258 2925.