King’s Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 22 March, 2006

The King’s Head has hosted numerous intimate musicals in its time, many of them biographical compilations such as the excellent Johnny Mercer show Too Marvelous For Words here three years ago. Chris Burgess’s two-hander (transferring from the New End for a six-week run) is a modestly-scaled offering even by these standards, as if the larger-than-life character of the Last of the Red Hot Mamas is sufficient to fill a stage on her own. Sue Kelvin’s Sophie shares the stage with her long-time accompanist Ted Shapiro (Michael Roulston, playing the piano far better than he plays any theatrical role).

It’s clear from the opening lines – “Have you seen the paper? It says I’m dead” – that the evening will incline far more towards divertissement than drama. Kelvin gets through two dozen numbers in under 90 minutes of playing time (not counting an interval), linked together by a canter through Tucker’s life: birth in Russia in 1884, upbringing in the family restaurant in Connecticut, early vaudeville career in blackface as a “coon shouter” before she established her own personality as a sassy Yiddishe woman of generous build and appetites to match. There’s little insight on offer: the son (from the first of three brief marriages) whom she all but abandoned in his infancy is periodically deployed to generate a few token minor-key moments in the first act, but after the interval he vanishes save for a couple of mentions as a figure of fun. Her sharp talking is often a delight: she jettisons her third husband with the words, “I already have one asshole down my pants, so I don’t need you”. On the press night, even her charitable devotion to Israel drew applause (she died a year before the 1967 war).

Kelvin seems to do a pretty good job of impersonating Tucker’s singing style, an odd combination of Sprechgesang and belting, although she undersells the tear-jerking schmalz somewhat. It’s all, as so many of these affairs are, thoroughly agreeable but scarcely more; I knew little about Tucker when I went into the theatre and I came out, like the judge in the old joke, better informed but none the wiser.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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