Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened  2 November, 2005

What William McGonagall was to poetry and Eddie the Eagle was to ski-jumping, Florence Foster Jenkins was to singing.  This wealthy Pennsylvania-born woman was a sincere music lover, who funded and ran a number of music clubs.  But when it came to her own talents, she had a tin ear. She couldn’t carry a tune in a lead-lined supertanker, never mind a bucket. Yet her self-belief was so solid that she became a major cult.

History scarcely remembers Jenkins. This both hampered writer Peter Quilter in his research and gave him licence to invent things for his play, Glorious!  He sets the piece in 1944 New York, the last year of Jenkins’ life when, just a month before her death at age 76, she sold out a concert at Carnegie Hall.  The other plot strand is how her new pianist, Cosme McMoon, travels from cynical disbelief to true admiration.

This is the kind of dotty yet spirited character at which Maureen Lipman excels, and she is on top form here.  Whether recording Strauss’s Laughing Song in one take or dealing with a protester and her petition (of 37 names!), Lipman’s Jenkins goes serenely but irresistibly ahead on her course.  “People may say I can’t sing,” she remarks in a moment of rare candour, “but no one can say I didn't sing.”

Lipman’s singing as Jenkins is a marvel in itself. Lord knows how she manages to produce such a fearsome caterwaul.  It’s important to realise that, as with the late Les Dawson’s piano playing, being so magnificently awful in exactly the right way takes considerable skill.  The notes and timing are all off, but still somewhere in the area, and above all she conveys the sense that a dose of exuberant vim will see her through.

As her pianist Cosme McMoon, William Oxborrow is every bit as excellent.  Cosme is written here as an amusingly acid gay man, and Oxborrow boasts a wide range of fey expressions as time and again he bites his lip about his sexuality or his employer’s talent.  Josie Kidd and Barrie Ingham both have strong comic supporting roles as an admiring neighbour and Jenkins’ ageing English actor boyfriend respectively.

There’s not much story to the play apart from the Carnegie Hall event. Even Cosme’s gayness looks as if it will become a plot point but is never paid off, just used for knowing gags.  But Quilter’s script is packed with jokes, and most of them are good ’uns.  Above all, the play itself achieves what Jenkins herself seemed to: it overcomes all the derision with an indefatigable good humour. A delight.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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