In the 1960s, critic Martin Esslin coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd”. Had he been at the White Bear Theatre recently he might have had to coin a new term for what he was seeing: “Theatre of the Unbelievably Absurd”!
The double-bill started with David Cantor’s I Play For Me in which Elliot Figueroa (played by Eddie Mann) appears as a 70s rock god complete with shoulder length hair, cowboy boots, fringed suede jacket, Levis and fires off Hendrix-like guitar riffs. The only problem is that at that point, the play is set in 1961 and he’s playing 60’s pop songs including “She’s Not There” (released in 1964) and “Friday On My Mind” (1966), so you can see the confusion. Elliot is auditioning for a gig at the Ilford Palais where Kathy Kirby (Maggie Lynne) is the headline act and she appears along with her manager/lover Bert Ambrose (Jeremy Gagan). To say Gagan’s performance is a little stiff but maybe he’s just warming up for his appearance as a “stiff” in the second play (more of that later).
Then with the use of ship’s sound effects, a couple of posters on the wall and Elliot tucking his jeans into his boots, we’re magically transported onto a ferry to France in 1965 where a sullen and by now heroin addicted (in 1965!?) Elliot, meets Billy-Boy (Harry McLeod), a teenager with special needs who like Elliot is running away from something. The plot then boomerangs from 1965 to 1962 and back again as we watch Elliot go from hero to zero now mis-managed by Ambrose – the time changes being signposted by whether Elliot’s jeans are tucked into or out of his boots.
After a shaky start to their relationship and some sub-sub Pinteresque dialogue, Elliott and Billy-Boy (without any real plot development) somehow bond and by the end of the play, the former is paying for the latter’s fare home as they both go back to face their demons. There’s then a coda where Elliott plays a song he’s written, the titular I Play For Me which indicates that he’s now a happy man no longer manipulated by Ambrose into singing material he’s not suited for. And his boots are no longer an issue as he gave them to Billy-Boy to replace his worn out pair. As they used to say at the start of the TV programme Soap: “Confused you will be”.
But I Play For Me is just the hors d’oeuvre for the main course that is Tim O’Brien’s’ Kathy Kirby: Icon. This is the story of Kirby who was a big star in the 1960s with a number of hit records and three series for BBC TV, her relationship with the Svengali-like Ambrose and her fall from grace. It’s mainly told by older Kathy (Tina Jones) as she talks to her manager (played by Lloyd Morris who’s also the MD and keyboard player in the show’s band), her teddy bear Benjy and the audience. This is told mainly through long speeches of exposition illustrated at times with songs from young Kathy who along with Ambrose had appeared earlier in I Play For Me, the tenuous device that links the two plays.
After a fairly conventional start, the plot like the first play veers through time from the 60s to the 80s back to the 70s and finally ending in 2011 as we watch the once glamourous and talented star fall apart. She tells of her affairs with Bruce Forsyth who suddenly appears (played by McLeod) and dances with her and Jimmy Savile (who thankfully doesn’t appear or dance). We also see Ambrose collapse and die from a heart-attack in a TV studio just as Kirby is due on stage but she’s a trooper and as the camp assistant (also played by McLeod) says “Do It for him”, so she does.
Then comes the piece de resistance as the corpse of Ambrose is wheeled on in an open coffin by two undertaker’s assistants and older Kathy gets the chance to chastise him for gambling away £5million of her money. Then Ambrose comes back to life, gets out his coffin and asks older Kathy to dance as he’s the “dance master of Mayfair”! After they put Ambrose back into his coffin, young Kathy sings a disco version of the ballad “Secret Love” whilst she and the two undertaker’s men dance around the coffin with choreography so camp it wouldn’t be out of place in La Cage Aux Folles!
The show ends as we “see” old Kathy in a shabby, one room apartment (well that’s where she tells us she is, in another long, rambling exposition speech). She then gets up and sings “Make Someone Happy” as the metaphorical curtain falls on this mess of a show.
Unfortunately, some of the actors garble their dialogue, trip over their lines or deliver them at a machine-gun pace. They try their best but the poor staging, trite, cliché ridden dialogue and camp dance routines, conspire against them.
The word heard a lot as the audience left the auditorium was “surreal”; it certainly was that and then some. There’s an interesting play to be written about Kathy Kirby’s extraordinary life; Kathy Kirby: Icon certainly isn’t it.
Review by Alan Fitter
She was the girl who had it all: charisma, beauty, money, talent and adulation. Best known for her for her cover version of Doris Day’s “Secret Love” and for representing the United Kingdom in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest, Kathy Kirby was musical icon of a generation. With her popularity peaking in the mid 1960s, she was one of the best known and most recognised personalities in British showbusiness, retiring at the height of her fame. But what happened when the party was over?
Kathy Kirby: Icon is accompanied by David Cantor’s new work I Play for Me which tells the fictional story of Elliot Figueroa, a trailblazing 1960s musician whose temperamental side comes hand-in-hand with his raw talent and, who on the brink of success, realises that everything comes at a cost
With a cast that comprises Jeremy Gagan, Tina Jones, Maggie Lynne, Eddie Mann, Harry McLeod, Lloyd Morris, Abbi O’Keiffe and Michael Scott Wiseman, Kathy Kirby Icon is written by Tom O’Brien whose work includes Money From America, Cricklewood Cowboys, Jack Doyle – Gorgeous Gael, Johnjo and On Raglan Road. I Play For Me is written by David Cantor who is best known for his work on the BBC comedy My Family. Both are directed by Tim Heath whose career as a writer and director has encompassed both opera and theatre, including work for Opera UK, Battersea Arts Centre, Theatre Royal Bath and The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford.
Kathy Kirby: Icon
20th October to 8th November 2015
White Bear Theatre
138 Kennington Park Rd, London SE11 4DJ