The thing about bringing a show to the London stage about someone who liberally used colourful language is that these days, effing and blinding is hardly shocking. One only has to overhear conversations in any public place, a pub, a theatre – even a pub theatre like the King’s Head – profanities are sprinkled without inhibition, with some seemingly unable to draw breath without using some swear word or other. Just as well, then, that there was far more to Coral Browne (1913-1991), played with suitable aplomb in this production by Amanda Muggleton, than strong language (which isn’t, in the end, as frequent as the play’s title might suggest).
Browne loved performing on stage, though there was more money to be made on movie sets. Browne, originally from Melbourne, Australia, came to London in search of stage work, having apparently exhausted options ‘back home’. She was advised to turn around and head back down under by a casting agent who had allegedly said the same thing to dozens of other Australian hopefuls for whom there was little or no prospect of finding enough work to make a living, supply and demand being what it was in the mid-1930s.
There’s a good mix of anecdotes about Browne’s personal life and professional milestones, though one is inclined to think as a result of this narrative that she had, or tried to have, relations with almost every leading man she worked with, and even a few she did not. Of note is her relationship with a producer called Firth Shephard (1891-1949), if only because Browne called herself “Shephard’s Bush”. But this is not a work of fiction. The long and the short of it is that, alongside much bedroom activity, she had a long and successful career in both film and theatre, and to a certain extent, television, including several Shakespeare plays and featuring in the original West End cast for the Joe Orton play What The Butler Saw, alongside the likes of Stanley Baxter and Sir Ralph Richardson.
There were so many details to get through that Muggleton, with a stellar and versatile career of her own including Terrence McNally’s Masterclass, about the opera singer Maria Callas (1923-1977), Mrs Peachum in a Sydney Theatre Company production of The Threepenny Opera, and a recent appearance in Channel Four Television’s long-running series Hollyoaks, made occasional use of the prompter at the performance I attended. The set is supposed to, I think, resemble her home in Los Angeles, and the miscellaneous boxes dotted around the front room were full of photos, correspondence, programmes, posters, and so on. A clear-out is therefore a reason for Browne to think out loud and reminisce.
Prompting aside, Muggleton turns out a convincing performance, and one that maintains a good rapport with the audience, especially when the occasional stage mishap occurred. For instance, a box of love letters unexpectedly fell from a table. True to the character being portrayed, she observed the said letters were upside down – rather like the position she found herself in from time to time in bed. At the end of the show, Barry Humphries’ tribute to Browne was played, which included the lines, “Uniquely-minded Queen of Style / No counterfeit could coin you / Long may you make the angels smile / ‘Til we all f—k off to join you”. A well-researched and well-performed piece of theatre, Browne’s forthrightness is a breath of fresh air in a world of political correctness. A splendid and suitably flamboyant production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Grande dame, adventuress, beauty, wit – the flamboyant Coral Browne travelled a world away from her humble Australian beginnings to become the toast of the London stage in the 1940’s. She also made unforgettable screen appearances in Auntie Mame, The Killing of Sister George, Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild and Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad in which she famously played herself encountering the spy Guy Burgess during a theatre tour of Moscow. Sexually adventurous with a deliciously bawdy wit, Coral was almost as well known for her glamorous lifestyle as she was for her memorable stage and screen performances. She had a string of famous lovers, including Paul Robeson and Maurice Chevalier, and enjoyed a late-life marriage to the king of schlock horror, Vincent Price.
In the U.K. premiere of this critically-acclaimed one-woman play, the wonderful Amanda Muggleton and writer/director Maureen Sherlock revisit Coral’s colourful life and sparkling career, putting this Grande Dame back into the spotlight where she belongs.
Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady!
19th May to 3rd June 2019