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LONDON THEATRE SHOWS BY BILLY SUTER (article first published : 2005-12-9)

If you're headed for London soon and have the time and/or the cash to see just one show, that is not one of the lavish and crowd-pulling musical extravaganzas, do yourself a favour and opt for Glorious! at the Duchess Theatre, a stone's throw from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. A new play by Peter Quilter, it is based on the fascinating true story of Florence Foster Jenkins.

Who, you may ask? And you wouldn't be alone in asking. There seems, hitherto, to have been precious little documented about the woman, an eccentric American soprano who developed a cult following in 1940s New York - despite the fact that she could seldom, if ever, hit the right notes.

A delusional nutter with pots of money, inherited from her banker father and added to from the riches of a divorce, Jenkins became the unexpected darling of the Big Apple's music scene. She was dubbed "the soprano of the sliding scale" and excited many, among them Noel Coward, who would often send her flowers and, with tongue often firmly in cheek, wish her well.

The irony was that Jenkins - who financed her own recordings, usually done in just one take - truly believed she was blessed with a wonderful voice. She further believed it her duty to engage her pals and the public with her interpretations of opera arias, lieder and song. For the many who mocked and knocked her, there were many others who found her a breath of fresh air, a comic curiosity to be applauded rather than hissed at.

And when, after years of semi-private recitals for devoted fans and friends, she ended up financing a 1944 performance at Carnegie Hall - appearing in outrageously tacky costumes she created herself - she filled the place to bursting.

Sadly, she died, aged 76, only a month after this high. Jenkins's most famous quote was a poignant one. "People may say that I can't sing but no-one can ever say I didn't sing," she once said. The deliciously dilly diva is suddenly flavour of the month on the global theatre scene, with a report that another play with music on her life, entitled Souvenir, with Judy Kaye as Jenkins, is now on Broadway.

Camp, but intentionally so, and laden with corny jokes, Quilter's Glorious! opened on London's West End only a few weeks ago and delivers the expected humour.

However, it is warmly bundled in a sweet, touching tale of a woman realising a dream, her love of music and wild enthusiasm proving so infectious that it made up for her total lack of talent. The play has met with mostly glowing reviews, the Daily Express labelling it funny but also touching and irresistible. "What begins as a joke becomes a lesson in how to achieve a goal. How you have to ignore or circumvent your shortcomings, make a positive for every negative, and believe in yourself," it said.

"I initially feared that Glorious! might prove a tedious, one-joke show, but it actually generates a rare glow of warmth and generous laughter," observed the reviewer for The Daily Telegraph. What makes this delightful production truly soar, however, is the towering performance from the seasoned and unfailingly excellent Maureen Lipman. She has had to pad her figure to suggest the rotund Jenkins and spent many hours perfecting off-key singing techniques.

Lipman is magical as a woman tenaciously throwing all caution to the wind to milk the most of life and follow her dream. Alan Strachan, who directed Lipman in Re Joyce, in which she played Joyce Grenfell, also draws fine performances from a small supporting cast highlighted by Josie Kidd as Jenkins's staunch, ditzy friend, who draws constant laughter with her pamperings of a very strange pet poodle that is close to death.

Laughs also come from Janie Booth as Jenkins's weathered and irate Mexican maid, Maria. The remaining cast includes a polished William Oxborrow, as Jenkins's gay, sarcastic pianist, Cosme McMoon; Barrie Ingham as British actor and Jenkins's doting beau, the suave and cheerful St Clair; and Lolly Sushi as the blustery Mrs Verindah-Gedge, a non-fan claiming to represent an organisation staunchly opposed to Jenkins's massacre of an art form.

Meanwhile, you would also do well to catch Durban favourite Amra-Faye Wright - star of Nunsense, Drinks On Me and Rouge Pulp - doing a mighty fine job as Velma Kelly in the London production of Chicago, at London's Adelphi Theatre.

She certainly holds her own alongside Sally Ann Triplett (for me, a tad over-animated as Roxie Hart) and Lynda (WonderWoman) Carter, as prison warden Mama Morton. New to the cast is British Pop Idol finalist Darius Danesh, who is making his theatre debut in the role of suave lawyer Billy Flynn. Danesh, who had a UK No 1 single with Colourblind, joined the cast on November 21 for a limited eight-week season. His role has previously been played in London by David Hasselhoff, Marti Pellow and Sacha Distel.

Incidentally, Chicago is now the Adelphi Theatre’s longest-running production, replacing Me and My Girl, the previous record-holder with a run of 3,303 performances. Amra-Faye Wright will be with the production until January. - Billy Suter




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