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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Duchess Theatre      Winter 2005

Peter Quilter's new comedy is a hoot and a holler and a joyous romp from start to finish. Maureen Lipman gives the best comic performance London has seen in many a year. You will love it and want to send all your friends to it.

And as a bonus, it is a warm and loving tribute to one of America's most delightful eccentrics.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich woman who fancied herself a classical soprano. For much of the first half of the Twentieth Century, she self-financed a string of recitals and recordings, culminating in a sold-out Carnegie Hall performance that has taken on mythic proportions.

The only problem was that Florence couldn't sing a note, and the cult of adoring fans who applauded her wildly to her face laughed hysterically behind her back.

To be fair, her voice wasn't really all that dreadful. A side trip to YouTube or Amazon will demonstrate that much of the time she comes fairly close to the notes she's aiming for (which is more than I can do).

Her singing will remind you of that one sweet woman in every church congregation whose enthusiasm outstrips her ability.

Historians of music and camp still debate whether Jenkins was in on the joke, but Peter Quilter has decided absolutely that she was not. His Florence is a total innocent whose life is defined by unclouded happiness.

She enjoys her inherited wealth, she loves her friends, she loves her music, and - whatever sound others may hear - she is transported by the joy of singing.

Under Alan Strachan's sensitive direction, Maureen Lipman captures that innocence and makes it absolutely believable and totally endearing.

Her Jenkins is so filled with happiness that words bubble out of her in a rush and she is frequently caught short in happy surprise at what she's just heard herself say.

Lipman also accomplishes the remarkable technical achievement of singing just badly enough, so that her aria that ends Act One inspires exactly the same mix of wonder, delight, incredulity and hilarity that the original did.

Playwright, director and actress lose their way briefly at the start of Act Two, as loving imitation falls over into knowing and exaggerated satire. It's hilarious, and at moments Lipman seems to be channelling Bea Lillie, but the tone is inappropriately sour.

Fortunately, things get back on keel for the recreation of the Carnegie Hall concert, and the show ends as it should, honouring and celebrating Jenkins' spirit.

The supporting cast mixes real-life characters, their personalities imagined by the playwright, with complete inventions.

Barrie Ingham makes Jenkins' lover-companion-manager a plummy old Shakespearean actor whose air of fakery is mellowed by his unquestioned love and support of her, while William Oxborrow is the accompanist truly named Cosme McMoon who can actually hear the sounds Jenkins is making and must tread the minefield of carefully-chosen words of praise.

Josie Kidd adds additional levels of comedy as a loyal friend even dottier than Jenkins.

Everyone who loves classical music will adore this. Everyone who hates classical music will adore this. Kids will adore this. You will laugh until it hurts and will leave the theatre desperately wanting to buy Jenkins' original recordings. Run, do not walk.

Gerald Berkowitz

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