"Glorious" is but one of many adjectives used by Florence Foster Jenkins' followers to describe her singing.
Peter Quilter's new comedy is based on a true story of 'The first lady of the sliding scale', a woman who claimed that Caruso's family encouraged her to sing and that when Caruso (the great Italian lyrical tenor) heard her sing he confessed that he 'never heard anything like it'. Once you heard her sing, you understand what he meant.
As Florence Foster Jenkins, Maureen Lipman brilliantly evokes the excruciatingly awful singing of the woman who had little sense of pitch or rhythm and was barely capable of sustaining a note. A singer whose pianist made adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. She is a woman who shrieks, squeaks and screeches, but what the hell, she loves it!
Quilter's play, directed by Alan Strachan, provides an interesting portrait of an eccentric American woman who, despite her patent lack of ability to sing, was firmly convinced of her greatness as a soprano singer.
The play is set in the year 1944, the last year of her life. While nations are embroiled in World War II, Florence is busy recruiting a new pianist, Cosme McMoon (Michael Blore), to accompany her in her forthcoming concerts and recitals.
Attendance of her recitals, she confirms, was always limited to her loyal admireres and followers. It was compulsory for every member of her audience to come to her house before her concerts to be interviewed - just to be sure the individual would not mock her performance. She was certain that those jeering her were rivals consumed by "professional jealousy".
She basked in adulation. Her room and the concert hall were filled with flowers from admirers. The cards attached testified to the high opinion they have of her "to madam and her glorious voice". "We look forward to hearing your voice at the Met" or "blooming roses to a blooming Diva" are but a few examples of many cards attached to bouquets and on stage she reads them aloud to ensure that we all share the sentiments of her admirers.
Maria, (Janie Booth) her housekeeper, a Spanish woman with whom she could not communicate (neither speaks the other's language) and the sentimental and somewhat pathetic friend, Dorothy (Josie Kidd) together with St Clair (Barrie Ingham) serve to accentuate Florence's bizarreness. Maureen Lipman terrifically emulates the Florence Foster Jenkins caricature of a soprano diva who is at once both a ridiculous and fascinating subject.
Florence Foster Jenkins believed no aria was too difficult for her to sing. Not even The Queen of the Night's fiendishly difficult aria in Mozart's Magic Flute was beyond her considerable abilities. Madly gesticulating, with outstretched neck and arms, Lipman wrenches forth lurching skywards for the high F in a performance which is outrageously sublime.
Maureen Lipman peculiarly endears an excessively eccentric character: a woman who knew what she wanted and got it - despite its ostentatious absurdity. Florence Foster Jenkins wanted to sing and be admired. Her last performance at Carnegie Hall was sold out weeks in advance. Even a modern day crooner would consider the advance sale of 3,000 tickets eminently respectable.
Peter Lathan reviewed this production during its pre-London tour.
Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson