Not having seen "She Knows You Know!" in either its Leeds or Edinburgh incarnations last year, I cannot pass judgement on rewrites or changes in direction which the show may have undergone. What I can say is that, as far as my dim childhood memories can testify, Jean Fergusson's impersonation of Bolton-born comedienne Hylda Baker is uncanny.
Tragically, most people of my generation will remember Baker, if at all, only vaguely for her 1978 spoof recording of "You're The One That I Want" with Arthur Mullard – one of the last, and saddest, gasps of a career which began with her "overnight success" at the age of 50, after four decades of working the music halls. (There could be no more appropriate West End theatre for Fergusson's tribute than the Vaudeville.) Her stage persona of the small but mouthy Northern woman – the miniature forebear of Les Dawson's Ada – was a fixture of stage and small screen during the 1950s and '60s, with her gossipy innuendoes and the trademark slips of the tongue which lead Fergusson's Hylda to remark here, "I'm sick of hearing about that flamin' Mrs Malaprop woman – I thought them up long before she did!"
Yet Baker seems to have been a deeply unpleasant person off the stage: arrogant, despotic, driven (according to Fergusson's script here) by a desperate, angry need to compensate for the absence of affection in her personal life. She is also terrified that any lapse of memory may be a symptom of the same decline into dementia that her beloved father suffered – which, indeed, is the case; Baker died in a hospital in Epsom in 1986, suffering from what Fergusson has her call "Oldtimer's Disease".
The distinctly un-Baker-shaped actress transforms herself into the 4'11" comic, not least with the help of a subtly oversized set. Fergusson's script also engages in a degree of sentimentalising, but this only careers out of control in the final couple of minutes as Baker shimmies on in a spangly dress for a final chorus of "I Wish You Love" before taking her place among the other stars in heaven. For the most part, though, the graver psychological motifs are laid out with care, neither too discreetly nor too bludgeoningly. And Baker always seems ready, even at her grimmest, to unleash a comic missile from her considerable arsenal. The sizeable chunks of her act which we see after the interval are the heart of "She Knows You Know!", in every sense; they show a woman who only really came alive in front of an audience, and who summed up the rest of her life: "I fought through two world wars... well, I fought more than that, but I lived through two world wars."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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