White Cobra Productions present ‘Glorious!: The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World’ by Peter Quilter at The Playhouse Theatre
We meet the eponymous Madame Jenkins (Kate Billingham) in her sitting room as she greets new pianist Cosme McMoon (Richard Jordan). And then we are fully immersed in her bizarre, endearing world.
Wonderful stories are based on wonderful characters, and Madame Jenkins was certainly one of those. After unexpectedly inheriting a huge sum of money from her father, she spends her time chasing her dream of being one of the great operatic divas. Funding her own recordings at Melotone Studios, and putting on charity galas and balls, Jenkins had all the drive to become a star. The only problem was that she couldn’t hold a tune. Steadfastly, however, she puts a positive spin on any and all comments made about her singing. Caruso himself encouraged her to sing, she explains, as after she performed for him he said he’d “never heard anything like it.” And it’s clear to see what he actually meant when we’re first treated to her vocals.
Despite the title, the play concentrates less on the actual singing (although Billingham murders those arias brilliantly) and more on the bizarre but loving people she surrounded herself with. Blessed with a blissful ignorance rather than a talent for the opera, Jenkins throws her heart and soul into her performances to very select audiences, often made up of her various Women’s Clubs members. And while she admits that the laughing and ill-behaviour from those who’ve come to see her as a spectacle rather than as a performer breaks her heart, the applause, and the flowers, make it all worthwhile.
A little research into Florence Foster Jenkins’ life proves that Peter Quilter has embellished a far sadder tale than the one we’re presented with here. Glorious! is positive and heartwarming, full of humour and wit, and concentrates on the last year of Jenkins’ life as she builds towards her most famous performance – Carnegie Hall.
Kate Billingham as Jenkins is simply marvellous. She brings the character to life in such a way that it’s easy to see why Florence Foster Jenkins was so well loved. A woman glowing with pride and passion, and ruthlessly pursuing her dream, whatever the cost. It’s not easy to sing badly “well”, but Billingham manages to sit just far enough off-key to be funny without it being painful. Combine that with some hilarious “operatic facial expressions” while she reaches for notes, and you have a wonderful, disastrous performance! Billingham doesn’t play Jenkins as a character to be mocked, as could so easily be done. Instead, you find yourself rooting for her to succeed in the face of adversity, falling in love with her a little along the way, just like those around her.
Surrounding the eccentric leading lady is an equally eccentric group of friends. Fraser Haines shines in the role of Jenkins’ English common-law husband St Clair Bayfield; cheeky, flirtatious, a little bombastic, but clearly with his heart in the right place. Richard Jordan as Madame Jenkins’ new pianist Cosme McMoon just about hides his opinion on her “talent”, his vague remarks taken as positive critiques. His little looks to the audience, and winces while she sang revealed his true thoughts, but like the others, he was soon swept up in her extraordinary lifestyle.
Florence’s friend Dorothy (Kimberley Vaughan) excitedly basks in Jenkins’ glory, acting as a cheerleader and unconditional supporter, while Mrs Verrinder-Gedge (Lynne O’Sullivan) doesn’t even attempt to hide her intense dislike and outrage at what she sees as an insult to the arts. Special mention has to go to Victoria Miles as Jenkins’ put upon Mexican cook Maria. While she ranted on in passionate Spanish, much to the delight of the audience, she expressed far more with a well-timed raised eyebrow or a sigh, and never failed to raise a laugh.
The show features a well-dressed set, which combined with some beautiful costumes is successful at bringing the 40’s to the stage, however letting the side down a little are the set changes. I appreciate that the Playhouse is not a great venue for anything more than moving a few props as there are no wings or backstage space to speak of. With five distinct locations for this production to deal with, they were going to have a battle on their hands. Making characters out of those charged with turning a lounge into a recording studio is a nice touch, but perhaps they could do with a few more people on hand? The changes were too long and sadly rather put the brakes on the otherwise lovely pace. Patchy lighting too was a distraction, although probably again a result of the limitations of The Playhouse.
Glorious! is funny, joyous and touching, and in the very safe hands of White Cobra’s talented cast and Ian Spiby‘s skilled direction. The depth of the performance comes from the knowing looks and asides, which somehow manage to cast an eye-roll in the direction of Jenkins’ voice without ever mocking her in the process. She was beloved because of her star quality – not for singing, but for her personality and joie de vivre – and her infectious positivity comes across beautifully here on stage. Perhaps we should all take a leaf from her book and strive for our dreams a little more?
Glorious! runs until Saturday 10 March at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, before touring across the UK in 2018 For further details visit www.whitecobraproductions.co.uk
Performance: 7 March 2018, The Playhouse, Northampton
Rebecca is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Bec also runs Rebel Peacock Creative Media.