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Rosemary Ashe in Adorable Dora – Pizza Express Live

Dora Bryan OBE (Rosemary Ashe) (1923-2014) had such a full and colourful life that it’s a wonder this production managed to get through her life story in one act – curtain up just after 8:00pm, and down around 9:15pm, ensuring the audience got home at a reasonable time. The venue being what it is (the live performance basement of a Pizza Express), one could also indulge in food and drink: yours truly went for it, with starters, main and dessert plus a bottle of wine, although one could indulge in as much or as little as one wishes.

Rosemary Ashe
Rosemary Ashe

The same could be said for the performance, in which one could sit back, enjoy the songs and let them wash over, or really listen very intently and get stuck into the gritty specifics. Ashe and her musical director, Paul Knight, glide through song after song – many of which are sung and performed at pace – often with observational comedy thrown in. There are plenty of details about Bryan’s life, right down to quite how she ended up going from Dora Broadbent to Dora Bryan (the answer isn’t all that obvious at face value, given that she married a man called Bill Lawton).

The thing about Bryan is that she did more or less ‘everything’ – apart from, as Ashe points out, the circus. She was cast in a production of Sir Noel Coward’s Private Lives, but it was a reprise of her performance in Hello, Dolly! that got the audience singing along. She even did Shakespeare plays, though according to this version of her, she hadn’t a clue what she was saying. Nods to other musicals she appeared in, including Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy, were also included in the evening’s brisk proceedings.

But alas, not everything did come up roses for Bryan, who (as this production would have it) carried on working when most people of pensionable age would have scaled back. Bryan continued to do the splits into her seventies, a point which Ashe dramatizes quite hilariously here. The couple owned a hotel in Brighton for some years, a business venture which ultimately failed for reasons explained during the show. There were personal demons to fight, which Bryan did through various means, which ranged from numbing emotional and psychological pain with alcohol to finding inspiration from faith and spirituality. She had even had a part in a film produced by World Wide Pictures, a subsidiary of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

She enjoyed performing in the theatre more than she liked filming for television or cinema, and thus the audience were treated to a few musical theatre standards. Bryan’s was an incredibly eclectic career: for all the showtunes, she won an Olivier Award in 1995 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for a part in the Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party. She had also appeared on Top of the Pops, thanks to a single called ‘All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle’, apparently the best bad record of 1963.

A commitment to storytelling keeps the momentum going, with even costume changes kept to a minimum. Bryan was once described as having a voice “like grinding diamonds in a domestic blender” – the same cannot be said of Ashe’s portrayal of her. This is more a ‘warts and all’ account of an extensive and eventful career rather than a rose-tinted one. Gripping and delightful, this show is a hoot.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

West End Diva Rosemary Ashe pays tribute to national treasure Dora Bryan, whose showbiz career spanned eight decades! From pantomime to Shakespeare, Carry On films to a BAFTA-winning role in A Taste of Honey, she did it all. As well as making millions laugh in sitcoms including Dinner Ladies, AbFab and Last of The Summer Wine, Dora lived a rollercoaster personal life. Expect fun, music & laughter with excerpts from Dora’s best-known shows!

The Pheasantry (Chelsea)


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