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Lipman is Glorious as Florence Foster Jenkins



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 success.

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 ago.

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 Quilter.

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 fact.

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
character.

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
Evenings 7.45pm
Matinees Wed. & Sat. 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6651

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