IF Florence Foster Jenkins had been alive today she’d have been a TikTok sensation, says Paul Townsend, director of Glorious! at Strode Theatre in Street this week.
Jane Sayer, who plays the role of “the worst singer in the world” at Street, is simply sensational. Her astonishing portrayal of the larger-than-life personality who, at the age of 76, filled the Carnegie Hall back in 1944, perfectly captures the bravado, the fear, the poignancy and the sheer volume as her voice soars towards keys and notes that the great composers never dreamed of.
Madam Jenkins believed in her abilities as an opera singer, and, undeterred by scoffers, continued to organise and fund gala performances among the social organisations of Manhattan. Finally she was invited to perform at the Carnegie Hall, and had to pawn her furniture and risk her home to fund the concert. In the event, the vast auditorium was sold out and the waiting list ran into thousands. The triumph was short lived, as she had a heart attack five days later, and died within a month.
Peter Quilter’s 2005 play Glorious! ends with a moving speech from her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, that underlines the faith that Florence had in her own voice. As she died, she heard the voice she thought she had.
The play opened in London to huge critical acclaim, with Maureen Lipman in the central role. It has since been performed around the English speaking world, but the staging requirements – and the need for a formidable actress and singer – make it problematic for most amateur dramatic groups.
No surprise then that Somerset, with its abundance of talent, should stage a production that is more than worthy of any professional staging.
Along with Jane Sayer, whose versatility and abilities are well known on local stages, the company includes Nick Barlow, a young actor and musician who has performed, directed music and generally delighted audiences in the region as Cosme, and the welcome return of Dennis Barwell as Florence’s “boyfriend” the English actor St Clair Byfield. Then there is the hilariously grumpy maid Maria (Tonya Pellecchia) whose role is entirely in very fast Mexican Spanish, Samantha Elgar as the devoted Dorothy, running around the stage on tippitoes, and Marie Salter as the domineering, truth-telling music lover Mrs Verrinder-Gedge. And of course Ricky.
Clever staging making use of projections bring the interior of the New York hotel, the recording studio and the concert hall to vivid life, and the costumes (Jenkins was famous for her home-made costumes) were specially created for the production by Jackie Watts, Gail Mackenzie and Nina Swift, aided by Paul.
This really is a glorious triumph of a production, for all involved. It shows the company of Somerset actors back at the very top of their form after the uncertainties and false-starts of the pandemic.
Shall I ever hear the Queen of the Night’s aria again without picturing the gleeful flapping of those wings? … I think not.