Fringe Online 2021
Cheryl Knight’s Ode to Joyce features its self-directed author and compiler, with Piano played by Paul Knight. Set Design by Louie Whitmore, Lighting by Johanna Town’s a relatively simple play of light and shadows, with conscious mini-blackouts. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till July 11th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
And we enter on a pun worth of Joyce Grenfell herself. Cheryl Knight’s Ode to Joyce features its self-directed author and compiler, with piano played by Paul Knight. At 70 minutes, it’s an outstanding homage, comparable to Maureen Lipman’s Re: Joyce of the 1990s.
Grenfell (1910-79) is easily parodied, not easy to imitate, deceptive to impersonate. Both as dramatist of solo sketches alternating wit, humour, and devastating pathos, she’s a also a lyricist, who had the incomparable fortune to work with her friend Richard Addinsell 1904-77; he of the Warsaw Concerto and Southern Cross. Her songs ‘I’m going to see you today’ and ‘Stately as a galleon’ have passed into the lingua franca of two generations; they might easily pass into a fourth, after Last Tango in Halifax.
Niece of Lady Astor, Grenfell’s married name is now horribly fused with Grenfell Towers, more than Julian Grenfell’s haughty death-song ‘Into Battle’ of 1915. Grenfell though hated the condescension of her class. No-one witnessing Knight’s extremely skilful selection of favourites and lesser-known work can miss Grenfell’s social consciousness, her empathy: for middle and working-class subjects, the idiocy of snobs, anxieties of well-to-do women pressured by class expectations.
Knight’s approach is to allow her own high soprano – lying on a similar tessitura to Grenfell’s – to settle but not cling round that. Knight’s voice is seemingly brighter, capable of wider range and volume. She begins from a point of inhabiting. Radiating out from Grenfell’s persona to edge her singing with that slightly brighter penumbra. Knight doesn’t guy Grenfell’s period accent either, but rather softens it a touch, rather like the queen has her own over the decades.
Knight too clearly avoids a clear chronological approach, though the show tends to that. As a homage too Grenfell’s art – not her life -is what Knight’s celebrating. A life’s refracted through that, but it’s the life of an art.
Set’s a chair, carpet, lamp, a few comfy signals to mid-century living including Knight’s knitwear and that piano, placed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town’s a relatively simple play of light and shadows, with conscious mini-blackouts.
Those song standards punctuate sketches and letters – the posthumously-published correspondence, often to Grenfell’s friend Victoria Graham, outlining with wit and observation her various war-time tours and after. We’re exposed to those sketches. How to Teach, famously with the catch-phrase ‘stop doing that George’ and the incident where the fire-brigade gets called, called off and called because of Sidney.
The most poignant though are monologues: Mrs Comstock visiting her son and his family in Australia, taking her first transatlantic flight. And in a slow shattering a put-upon woman looking after her father and her lover Ken on the phone unable to accept the perilous brief meetings where the daughter’s able to breathe in between orders from her intolerable father. It ends in quiet devastation. Ion both of these Grenfell accesses in miniature the pathos that Noel Coward for one managed, and even Rattigan. Finally too there’s the farewell and a flurry of an envoi, perfectly caught.
Knight commands this material, and more streams the spirit of Grenfell. A gem of an incarnation.