Review by David Munro
FLORENCE Foster Jenkins was a legend in her lifetime. She was
a lady who believed she was blessed with divine voice and that
it was her duty and pleasure to delight her friends and, latterly,
the public with her renditions of arias from the operas interspersed
with lieder and song.
Sadly, her voice, though powerful, rarely stayed on pitch or
hit the correct note, making her renditions discordantly appalling
yet strangely appealing.
Money from her Father and her divorce enabled her to promote
her musical ambitions although she declined to appear in New York
more than once a year and rarely 'sang' anywhere else other than
at private clubs and ballrooms.
For years her recitals were a semi-private event for a select
few; devoted clubwomen, friends and those who came to savour what
would now be described as a 'camp' appreciation of her dissonances.
Her performances were enhanced by her 'flair' for costume design
which was almost as bizarre as her vocalisations. It was not unknown
for her to make an entrance with her matronly form draped in tulle
and tinsel finished off with a pair of wings and these, too, were
a joy for the connoisseurs of camp.
Slowly word got round that her performances were events not to
be missed and were even attended at times by critics, with the
result that she was persuaded to desert the ballroom circuit and
take the plunge and appear at Carnegie Hall.
This crowning event of her career occurred on the evening of
October 25, 1944; tickets were sold out and the event was huge
Sadly, this was not only the zenith but also the final performance
of her career as she died at the age of 76, one month later.
Luckily, she left behind her a legacy of recordings (which I
believe has now found its way on to CD), so it is possible to
imagine what her performances must have been like all those years
She was apparently a very happy and contented woman who took
great pleasure in her appearances and never seemingly realised
that a lot of her audience came on account of her eccentricities
and to scoff at her performance, which they took as a huge joke.
This pleasure must have communicated itself to her audiences
which may explain how she was able to 'sell out' her concerts
for so long and with such a faithful following.
Now Maureen Lipman has elected to portray this ‘monstre
sacre’ in a comedy, Glorious, by Peter
I am a great admirer of Miss Lipman both as an actress and a
comedienne, although this admiration was somewhat challenged when
she essayed that other great eccentric of the stage, Joyce Grenfell.
I therefore had mixed feelings when I heard about her new venture
into theatrical grotesquery. I need not have worried.
She gives a very funny and yet extremely sensitive performance;
combining the gaucherie of the character with the warmth of a
silly but sincere woman.
This was a woman you could understand would think her voice
was as good as that she heard in her head. A woman you could accept
would fail to hear the laughter and take it as the acclamations
of her devoted fans.
A really well balanced and rounded reading of a character who
while provoking mirth by her ludicrous posturing has an underlying
pathos that is truly human.
A performance which merited a better vehicle than Mr Quilter
has given her, which is, in essence, an extended revue sketch,
or series of revue sketches.
It is set in 1944 and purports to deal with the events leading
up to the Carnegie Hall concert.
It opens with her interviewing Cosme
Mcmoon (William Oxborough) for the job of her accompanist. A rather
surprising situation, as the real life Cosme can be heard on the
records made a decade or so earlier.
It does, however, typify Mr Quilter's attitude to the subject
which appears to take a broad brush approach to facts and incidents,
shoe-horning them into his plot irrespective of accuracy or historical
This results in a series of scenes calculated to display Miss
Lipman’s talents in portraying Mme Foster Jenkins lack of
it. It is, in essence, a star vehicle for Miss Lipman who grabs
it with both hands and turns it into a more amusing and worthwhile
evening than is justified by the material she has to work with.
Her blazing performance (and Mr Quilter’s script) does
not leave much for her supporting cast to do but it is fair to
say that when they do get a moment centre-stage, they don’t
waste it and form a perfect setting for the star, be it Miss Lipman
or Mme F.J.
William Oxborough makes Cosme Mcmoon a wry, caustic gay man who
has to use his talent as a pianist to disguise Madame’s
worst vocal excesses. He makes a sympathetic foil to Miss Lipman’s
performance and the moment when he professes his real affection
for her is strangely moving.
Barrie Ingham’s St Clair stands in for all Florence Foster
Jenkins’ sycophantic admirers.
His character is that of an unsuccessful British 'Actoor' who
is prepared to praise her for a drink or a meal; a caricature
of a character that only an actor of Mr Ingham’s skill could
make halfway convincing.
Similarly, Josie Kidd’s Dorothy, the archetypal American
club woman whose dog accompanies her everywhere, whose (the dog’s)
demise creates one of the play’s funnier moments although
it has no real relevance top the plot.
Miss Kidd is a very good support to Miss Lipman and she, too,
makes the most of it.
There is, of course, a funny maid who speaks no English, frenetically
played by Janie Booth, and the voice of reason personified by
the society matron, Mrs Verindah Gedge (Lollie Susie ) who are
peripheral to the principal characters and act as sounding board
for funny lines and situations.
They both do their best with these thankless parts and add their
ha’porth to the humour of the evening.
A lot of which humour must be credited to Alan Strachan’s
deft and witty direction, which pastes over the worst excesses
of the book and rightly gives Miss Lipman her head; a concession
she does not abuse.
Don’t go to this play in any expectation of a serious treatment
of a strange but real
Go to enjoy Maureen Lipman’s interpretation of her and
you will not be disappointed. It is her evening and my only regret
is a feeling that given a better script she could have turned
in the performance of the year.
As it is, in my book her performance rates very high even if
her singing, like Norfolk, is very flat!
Post Scriptum: What has triggered this upsurge
in interest in Mme Foster Jenkins? I only ask as it is apparently
not only confined to the UK, there being a play with music on
her life, entitled Souvenir, with Judy Kaye as the Diva,
scheduled to open on Broadway in November - the same time, as
I am led to believe, Glorious will open in London at
the Duchess Theatre. The Legend lives on indeed!
Glorious by Peter Quilter.
Directed by Alan Strachan.
Designer – Simon Higlett.
Lighting – Jason Taylor.
Sound – Dan Hoole.
Production – Jon Driscoll.
CAST: Maureen Lipman; Barrie Ingham; William Oxborrow;
Josie Kidd; Lolly Susi; Janie Booth.
Presented by Michael Codron & Lee Dean by arrangement with
Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 IQJ.
Mon, Oct 3 - Sat, Oct 8, 2005
Matinees Wed. & Sat. 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6651