**** (4 Stars)
Joyce Grenfell will be best remembered by film buffs as the toothy, angular spinster games mistress in the original St Trinian’s films. Unfortunately film makers couldn’t see her in other types of role and so film audiences never got to see her many other talents. Joyce was born into a privileged world – her aunt was Nancy Astor, and she spent a lot of time at Cliveden, the Astor’s country house – but she found an outlet for her singing and comedic talents when in 1939 she was invited to take part in the Little Revue in the West End. Her impersonations and characterisations were an unexpected hit, and she never looked back. She appeared in more revues, entertained the troops with ENSA in the second world war, wrote many books, collaborated with Stephen Potter to produce radio programmes, became a well-known and well-loved television performer, and worked with pianists Richard Addinsell and William Blezard, performing her intimate shows on stage and television all over Britain, Australia, and America.
I’ve known and loved Joyce’s work all my life – and so, obviously, had the audience at the Brunton last Friday. Suzanna Walters and Andrew D Brewis gave superb performances as Joyce and Bill Blezard, in the first half arriving at the Brunton for a warm-up and preparation for the evening’s show, and in the second half giving us a full-on, sparkling performance of some of Joyce’s best-known songs and loving, accurately-observed monologues.
The audience was quiet at first – possibly concentrating very hard on listening appreciatively – but there were laughs right from the start – when Joyce asked is this place run by the council?, when Bill complained of the nylon sheets in his hotel, and when Joyce expressed surprise that people still wanted to come and hear her in an era when others were going crazy for the Rolling Stones. Songs and monologues were interspersed with chatty conversation which cleverly gave an outline of Joyce’s career and mentioned some of the people who crossed her path, including a young Clive James and Johnny Ball.
The second half was outstanding right from the start, as both performers came in in their concert gear and moved immediately into Joyce’s signature tune I’m going to see you today. We re-encountered all our favourite characters – Lumpy Latimer, so exquisitely awkward at her first old girls’ reunion after innumerable years in the colonies; the prize worrier who simply didn’t know how to cope with having won a rabbit [still in its skin] in a raffle; the professional singer who gave up her career to look after her children while her husband globe-trotted and met up with a number of ‘good [female] friends’ – but always came home; the anxious mother on her first transatlantic flight to meet her son’s African-American wife, and hoping desperately – I just want to do it right.
The night would not have been complete without Stately as a galleon – the humorous description of women forced by a shortage of men to dance with each other – and I have three brothers, a seemingly loving celebration of a woman’s involvement first in the lives of her three brothers and then in those of their children which reveals the tragic loneliness of her servitude to these uncaring siblings. A woman’s hymn-singing worry about whether or not the gas had been left on under the saucepan of chicken bones was followed by the monologue we’d all been waiting for – Free activity period in a kindergarten class, with not only George, don’t do that…but an unending stream of little disasters culminating in the summoning of the fire brigade to release a finger deliberately stuck in a keyhole, the crowning glory of an evening we’d all been eagerly anticipating and which magnificently lived up to our expectations.
Suzanna Walters was superb as Joyce, though I was a little concerned for her singing voice which seemed to be rather strained – maybe the result of an extensive tour of this delightful show. The piano playing of ‘Bill Blezard’ was at all times delightfully impressive [looking so ridiculously easy!] but he got a special round of applause for playing while lying underneath the keyboard… The audience obviously loved every minute of the show and were sorry to see it end.
Choice Grenfell, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, RUN ENDED