NY Theater Reivew By Elizabeth Ahlfors
Why was Pat Kirkwood so angry? In her heyday, the golden cabaret and theater age of the British musical comedy, she was a vibrant, persuasive vocalist with a sassy wit. The Telegraph called her the “British Betty Grable.” Critic Kenneth Tynan claimed her legs were “the eighth wonder of the world.” She was Britain’s first wartime star, admired by Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein and Cole Porter, a glamour girl who married four men, one who was her great love and the other, “a complete shit.” She enjoyed dalliances with celebrities. Yet, her spotlight dimmed fast after an unfortunate association with one particularly high-profile man, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Princess Elizabeth.
Kirkwood’s story fascinated singer/writer Jessica Walker (The Girl I Left Behind Me), whose new one-woman show, Pat Kirkwood is Angry, is currently featured at 59E59 Theaters. A slim, vibrant mezzo-soprano and compelling storyteller, Walker skims through the zesty tale of an undeniable talent. She enlivens the story with Kirkwood’s bittersweet emotion, tart humor, and caustic bluntness like calling one co-star, George Formby, a “cretinous little creature.” Insecure, Kirkwood deeply resented those contemporaries who enjoyed longer stardom (“Dame Vera Lynn, Dame Edith Evans…Dame practically everyone, but never Dame Pat Kirkwood.”)
Walker highlights Kirkwood’s life and over 60 years in films, revues and television with mostly theater songs. It is in her personally meaningful ballads that Walker’s confident, trained voice most touches the audience. “You’ve Done Something to My Heart” exhibits the love for Kirkwood’s second husband and after his premature death, she delivers a stunning, “So Little Time.” Later, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” passionately divulges the disappointment in her longest marriage and the husband who betrayed her with a younger woman. Building the point, she adds an embittered, “Guess Who I Saw Today.”
Unfortunately, excessive song snippets and medleys cram the sketchy book, beginning with the opening pastiche of childhood performances. Dashing on through the decades, tunes like “Crash! Bang! I Want to Go Home” digest the Blitz and for the disappointing MGM era after the war, narration mixes with song in an extensive, “Love on a Greyhound Bus.” This segment includes a breakdown and hospitalization due to MGM’s insistence she take thyroid medication to lose weight. She later returns to the UK to resume her cabaret and stage career, including Noel Coward’s musical, Ace of Clubs, written for her with songs that she felt, “were second rate.”
In 1948, after a show at the Palladium, a friend brought the Duke of Edinburgh backstage to meet her, leading to supper, dancing, and breakfast. Kirkwood reported later that, “He was amusing and flirtatious…and I’ll admit, I enjoyed his attentions.” However, at the time, Philip’s wife, Princess Elizabeth, was eight months pregnant and her father, King George VI, was outraged as rumors raged of an affair between the performer and Philip, despite Kirkland’s denial. The Palace refused to openly address the situation and her popularity and fame evaporated. Walker says, “I leave it open. No one knows what really happened except Prince Philip.”
Toward the end of the show, Walker trades her stiletto heels for slippers, physically shrinking and bending with age. Her bright sassiness gives way to overt bitterness. Kirkwood admits having made bad choices with husbands, liaisons and jobs, but was most resentful for being remembered more for her association with Prince Philip than for her career. Actually, today, such infamy would boost the acclaim instead of making her a forgotten legend.
Said the playwright, “The real scandal is not whether she did or did not have an affair with the Queen’s husband, but that this great star, who helped to rally the nation’s morale with her performances at the height of the Blitz, was allowed to die without so much as a humble MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) to her name.”
Presented by Jess Walker Music Theatre in association with Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Originally co-produced by Opera North and Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, UK. Accompanied by Joseph Walker at the piano, Jessica Walker’s performance is directed by Lee Blakeley with musical arrangements by James Holmes. Lighting by D.M. Wood. Production stage manager is James Steele. Performances at 59E59 Theaters began June 10. Opened June 15, 2014 with limited engagement through June 29, 2014. Running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
*Photos: Carol Rosegg