I know nothing about the life of Marni Nixon, but if her real-life character at her peak in the 1960s resembled that of her fictionalised counterpart in Dan Rebellato's Showstopper, it is hardly surprising that, although one of the (ironically) unsung Hollywood greats, she only once appeared in front of a camera.
Rebellato's one-woman play depicts singer Carole James who, like Nixon, supplied the singing voices of Deborah Kerr in The King And I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, but made her only brief screen appearance as a minor nun in The Sound Of Music. We see James the eccentric diva in a dubbing studio, James chattily derailing an audition for The Sound Of Music and finally – in costume, wimple and all – James receiving a party visiting the film's location shoot, almost inadvertently granting them not just an audience and a generous dose of insider gossip but an insight into her deepest bittersweet dreams.
This is a character whom one would love to meet, but would have serious reservations about taking on as a friend: pathologically incapable of keeping a confidence ("I never gossip [pause] – not like Mary Martin, she's awful!"), unable to keep to a schedule or routine... in short, a flibbertigibbet, a will-o'-the-wisp, a clown. Like the finest clowns, however, James also nourishes a deep stream of tears; having given herself entirely to the Tinseltown dream both in her filmgoing childhood and in her backroom career, she suffers piteously when the reality – and in particular her beloved Hepburn – fails to live up to her illusions. The core of Carole James's character emerges not in her repeated accounts of the My Fair Lady wrap party, which gradually decline from mirrorball fantasy into sordid desperation, but her description of love as an uncontrollable secretion which oozes, stains and leaves conspicuous trails.
Under Sarah Frankcom's direction, Jackie Clune gives a performance which is by turns delightful and poignant, at one moment offering up indiscretions about her gay agent or speculating with bitchy horror, "Imagine being Shelley Winters!", at the next overcome with emotion at the smallest token of attention from her idol. The 80-minute piece includes only two songs (one of which is touchingly reprised), but in each case Clune gives the impression of being utterly transported by the music, and succeeds in taking the audience with her. Showstopper, first seen in Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms last August, is an unabashedly sentimental show – more than slight, but little more – of the kind which, by chance, have come in the last couple of years to find their natural West End niche at the Arts Theatre. Its appeal deserves to be wider than aficionados of the campier aspect of Hollywood-musical culture.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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