Review: Story of the singing star who couldn't sing is stirring stuff on Coventry stage

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Nick Le Mesurier reviews Glorious! at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

These days, when it seems a whole industry has been built upon the premise that we all can follow our dreams, the story of Florence Foster Jenkins is salutary. She is the original self-made star, the woman who through self-belief, or self- delusion depending on your point of view, got to fulfil her dream of being an opera singer.

Her story has recently been made into a star-studded film, but Peter Quilter’s play Glorious! pre-dates that. We follow the true story of Miss Foster Jenkins from wealthy 1940s socialite to a star of Carnegie Hall, feted, or is it mocked, by the cream of New York society. Her fame rested on the fact of her voice, which was by all accounts less than good. But something in her character must have appealed to a mass audience, for while they laughed at her they also sympathised with her to the point of adoration. She had legions of fans, though what they were applauding is another matter.

Jan Nightingale’s portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins is simply marvellous. To sing so badly so well takes some doing. And Ms Nightingale does it well. We genuinely feel for her. No small part of that affection comes from the love her character inspired in those closest to her, which warms the whole theatre. She certainly commanded loyalty. Her long-standing / long suffering pianist Cosme McMoon (Joe Fallowell) and her lover St Clair (Alan Fenn) remained with her for years, partly for her money one suspects, but also out of something more.

Then there’s her gloriously eccentric friend Dorothy (Sara Russell) and her dog Ricky, and her feisty furious maid Maria (Kelly Davidson) who speaks only Spanish but makes herself known nevertheless. On stage theirs is a warm, eccentric, delightfully daft sort of family, and the perfect backdrop to their star’s oddity. The only fly in the ointment comes from Mrs Verrinder-Gedge, representative of one of the many women’s groups that buzzed around Miss Foster Jenkins, who calls her bluff. But not even she can deflate the ego, or is it the optimism, of a woman who truly loved the art for which she had no talent at all.

This is a play about character, rich in humour, touched with just a hint of tragedy. It is amusing rather than hilarious, beautifully played, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that maybe, just maybe, our illusions might be more than that, and that even in this cruel world there might be room for hope.

* Glorious! runs until Saturday February 1. Call 024 7667 5175 or visit www.criteriontheatre.co.uk to book.