Camden Fringe 2012
She was billed as the next Vera Lynn, but she only wanted to be the first Kathy Kirby – Tom O’Brien’s new play about the 1960s singer takes shape at The Etcetera Theatre.
A brief encounter at The Ilford Palais in 1956 introduced a sixteen year-old Kathy Kirby to veteran dance bandleader Bert Ambrose. Not perhaps for herself but for Ambrose, now her manager, lover and mentor, she transformed her appearance to epitomise the hourglass-figured blonde bombshell, a Diana Dors meets Marilyn Monroe hybrid –his two ideal women rolled into one.
With coiffured peroxide hair, scarlet-red lacquered lips and lashings of mascara, matched with the winning vocal and performance abilities of the timeless Doris Day, Kirby became a 60s singing sensation. Her career peaked during the decade, representing the
Heath opens with her Eurovision performance before focusing in on her relationship with Ambrose and the effect his death in 1971 had on her life and career. He charts a turbulent personal journey, including an affair with Bruce Forsyth, an overdose, a miscarriage, an abortion, a failed marriage, a lesbian relationship, a disorientating spell in a psychiatric hospital, and her eventual self-imposed seclusion: “I’m a recluse like Garbo; and like Garbo, I want to be alone.”
O’Brien is clever in his arrangement, flicking between the young Kathy (Victoria Farley) onstage, and the older Kathy (Roni Page) backstage, with little to no bookings, lonely and embittered but still somehow irrepressible. Farley and Page both offer brilliant performances. In resurrecting many of the songs Kirby sang over the course of her early career, Farley is exceptional. All smiles and gusto, she belts out classic Charles Chaplin and Gershwin with a semi-operatic, pop-friendly, accessible style. Likewise Page is poignant in her depiction: a strong but openly-distressed woman, with a successful past antagonising an unsuccessful present.
Anthony Cable cuts a convincing figure as the controlling, jealousy-ridden Ambrose. Desperate to keep Kathy in his grasp while gambling away her wealth, he climbs in and out of his coffin as the time frame hops about – instant theatre. Also of note are the backing musicians – accompanying guitars (Pete Gavin/Eirik Svela) and drums (Katie Patterson) which really complete the effect.
Despite patches of rather predictable dialogue, this production sensationally showcases the vocal skills of Victoria Farley and Roni Page, and their equally-skilled acting abilities. It’s Farley and Page, and the work of Musical Director Barry Potts, who set this dramatisation alight.