By Darby Turnbull
Having seen Maureen Sherlock’s delightful play in its first iteration during 2017’s Adelaide fringe festival it’s a been a joy to see it tour Australia and the UK keeping the legacy of the inimitable Coral Browne alive. Heralding from West Footscray, Melbourne (as do I) born to a bourgeois lower middle-class family she rose from winning elocution and recitation competitions where she developed her gloriously plumb diction. She proceeded to become a leading player in JC Williamson’s company essaying major classical roles before moving to London and becoming a star of the west end stage in light comedy and classical drama. Her film career includes scene stealing turns as the dipsomaniac great lady of the stage Vera Charles in Auntie Mame and the predatory Mercy Croft in the killing of Sister George and late in life BAFTA winning turns in An Englishman abroad by Alan Bennett based on an experience she had with an English spy whilst touring in Moscow and Dreamchild in which she played an elderly Alice Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland. She was renowned for her flamboyance, blue mouth, quick wit, sexual fluidity and an enviable string of lovers that included Paul Robeson, Maurice Chevalier and two husbands the probably gay Phillip Pearman (who died in his early 50’s) and king of schlock horror Vincent Price. Incredibly popular amongst audiences in her time she hasn’t gotten the long-term recognition that her talent and personality might have deserved, which makes Sherlock’s reverent and well researched play so essential.
To my ear it works best as a chronicle or documentary that follows Browne’s illustrious career and life. It features the simple framing device of Browne sorting through her theatrical memorabilia and old letters, sharing anecdotes and gossip as they come up. Sherlock has opted not to explore her psyche particularly deeply, focusing instead on Coral the character with few insights into who she might have been as a woman. There are brief intimations as to what she thinks of changing modes in popular theatre and opportunities offered to even the most accomplished of mature actresses, but they are quickly passed over to get to the next salacious story. I believe this is a strong choice as Coral Browne hardly seems the type to dwell but rather faced life with unbridled self confidence and canny timing. As she says, make yourself the butt of the joke before anyone else can. Her legendary witticisms and bon mots are abundantly spread throughout the text; who wouldn’t want their best one liners available at their fingertips?
Amanda Muggleton had a very well received season as Browne in London recently and she’s an ideal successor to Genevieve Mooy who originated the role. One of the grandest dames of the Australian stage herself she is no stranger to solo performances or playing larger than life women from history including Maria Callas and Helena Rubinstein. Incidentally one of my first memories of Diva worship was seeing her play Miss Hannigan 20 years ago. For a myriad of reasons that may have included adjusting to the performance space, opening night nerves or sheer gargantuan nature of her task her performance was somewhat rawer than expected last night. Trooper that she is she kept herself going with the occasional prompt and bringing herself back to her place in character. However, she holds court in the Brunswick ballroom with charm, grace and occasional imperiousness. Her Browne is the consummate working actor without an ounce of self-pity. Muggleton offers some lovely moments that suggest loneliness, vulnerability and lingering resentments that come from having lived a long, event filled life. I wish the text had allowed her greater scope to explore these moments for added dramatic heft.
Nadia Tass’s production keeps things minimalist and efficient; the highlight being helpful projections featuring photographs and press clippings of Browne. The Brunswick ballroom hasn’t had much experience with doing theatre as they’re primarily a music venue, but the production has been adapted to the space elegantly. The stage includes a staircase meaning Muggleton can make a series of grand entrances and exits befitting her and Browne’s Diva status. The cabaret style setting adds reverence to the casual, conversational style of the text.
This Fu**ing Lady is a wonderful opportunity for theatre history buffs and fans of Coral Browne to revel in her extraordinary career and accomplishments. New fans should absolutely seek out her films, clips from performances and her archival materials here in Melbourne.
Coral Browne: This Fu**ing Lady plays at the Brunswick Ballroom until April 18th.
Images: David Parker