White Cobra Productions‘ latest show, Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, heads to The Playhouse Theatre from 6 March 2016. We spoke to Kate Billingham, who plays the Diva herself, about the upcoming production.
What was it about the play that inspired you to perform it?
Our director Ian Spiby knew that White Cobra were looking for small cast plays back in 2013 and gave us a copy of a two-hander with Florence Foster Jenkins and her pianist Cosme McMoon entitled “Souvenir”. The fact that it was based on a true story appealed to us. Last year I started to do some research on Florence and found that there was another script from Peter Quilter, sent off for a copy and it was a no-brainer – I have never laughed so much when reading a script. I asked Ian and Richard to have a read and they thought it was fantastic. Everyone who has read it has fallen in love with it.
She was a truly tone-deaf singer – why do you think she had such dedicated and devoted fans?
She could hit some notes! She was a delightful person to be around, funny, caring and generous with her inheritance, supporting young musicians breaking into the business. I think people genuinely loved her. The writer, Peter Quilter, sums it up perfectly “It is a great story of triumph over adversity and it’s one of those amazing tales that make people instantly laugh at the absurdity of all. But even more interesting is the fact that Florence Foster Jenkins was such a happy woman. She defied all her critics and soldiered on to pursue her dreams. So while very funny, it is also a very touching and uplifting story. And those elements are wonderful material for a play”
What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing such a larger than life character and story to the stage?
Definitely the singing! Quilter does say that Florence’s voice doesn’t have to be mimicked, just sung badly. But I wanted to get a close as possible so listened to Madam Jenkins’ own recordings whilst driving in the car and started to sing along once I’d learned the lyrics – my apologies to Northampton drivers if they were distracted by my screeching! It will also be a challenge to win over the audiences so that, like Cosme, they perhaps start ridiculing and laughing at her at the beginning but then fall in love with her by the end and are rooting for her at Carnegie Hall.
“Glorious!” is going on tour after your tun at The Playhouse in Northampton – do you enjoy taking a show on the road?
The touring is everyone’s favourite bit and we’re now very adept at loading, unloading and adapting our set to suit all sizes of stage. This set is our most technical and adventurous to date and our set designers Rod and Kim have come up trumps as they have to bear in mind all the theatres we visit. We’ve established some wonderful relationships with our regular venues and we love turning up at a new location not always knowing what to expect. Thankfully Denise, our Stage Manager, has a Mary Poppins bag that seems to be equipped for all eventualities. Our ‘stopovers’, when locations are too far away to drive back after performances, are always the best – cheesy chips after the show and bottles of Prosecco back at the hotel until the early hours! A late breakfast, a wander around the town then back home to catch up on some sleep. We particularly look forward to appearing at The Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man during their Easter Festival, that theatre is really something special.
What are your favourite types of role to play?
I don’t think I have a favourite type. I’ve been lucky enough to play a variety and think that’s what keeps me interested. I’ve had a run of comedy characters with Gladys in “Hi-de-Hi“, Florence in “Glorious” and playing Shelly in our next production of “Duets” so I shall be pleased to move onto Maureen in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” next Spring. It will be a challenge to master the Irish accent again and play someone who has a lot of issues.
Of all the shows you’ve performed with White Cobra, which have been your favourite?
It has to be playing Mona in “Days of Wine & Roses“. We fell in love with the script as soon as we read it. It was a challenge getting to grips with the Northern Irish accent but we won and received numerous awards for it at The British All Winners Festival in 2014 (the BAFTA/Oscars of the Amateur Theatre world)! I also have fond memories revising lines walking along the beach on our honeymoon – one of the benefits of a two-hander with your husband!
Why should people come to see “Glorious!”?
It is a beautifully written piece which cannot fail to make people laugh out loud. It’s the perfect feel-good story and we firmly believe it is funnier than the recent Oscar-nominated film with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. The set is our most ambitious and deserves a round of applause itself! All the characters are portrayed brilliantly, attired in some amazing authentic 1940s costumes, deliver some fantastic one-liners and of course the singing is “out of this world”. What’s not to like?!
‘Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins’ runs from 6 – 10 March at 7.45pm at The Playhouse Theatre, Clare Street. Tickets £11 (£10 concessions) available online or on 07447217622