Glorious, Duchess, London

Ah, the potency of terrible music...

Kate Bassett
Sunday 13 November 2005 01:00
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Florence Foster Jenkins raised the roof and thousands of eyebrows when she sang at New York's glittering Carnegie Hall in 1944. This eccentric homegrown soprano was, quite shamelessly, tone-deaf, yet people loved her flamboyantly excruciating recitals, wincing with laughter at the travesty. And now Madam Jenkins is getting her second wind, portrayed by a waddling yet girlishly giggling Maureen Lipman.

Directed by Alan Strachan, Lipman is on ebullient and endearing form in this bio-drama which should prove a popular Christmas show. Her rendition of Mozart's "Queen of the Night" - akin to a cageful of chimps being goosed - is irresistibly awful. She is also comically inspired with props, frantically struggling to shake off a pair of tenacious castanets after her big Hispanic number. Actually though, the set arias are not this show's greatest strength, straining a bit to be hilarious with Lipman in tinselly, panto-style outfits.

It's Peter Quilter's surrounding script which is outstandingly droll and surprisingly touching, introducing us to Madam's booming, adoring lover (Barrie Ingham) and her stupendously surly Mexican maid (Janie Booth). Also outstanding is William Oxborrow as Cosme, her newly hired, arch pianist. His performance is perfectly pitched, blending appalled frozen stares with smiling double-edged praise. The comedy is relieved by sharp glimpses of his cynicism and despair. I'm not wholly persuaded Jenkins naively, or neurotically, believed she was a true virtuosa. But Lipman does, rather wonderfully, become America's all-singing answer to Don Quixote, connecting with everybody's dreams and delusions of being brilliant, as well as just getting out there and going for it.

To 29 April, 0870 895 5589

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