Fringe Online 2021
Jermyn Street Directed by Ben Stock and Music Driected by paul Knight for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. To June 27th . Filmed and may be later available as stream.
A perfect Sunday afternoon’s homage of 100 minutes. Rosemary Ashe writes and stars in Adorable Dora, a showcase homage to Dora Bryan. Ashe has the voice to inflect everything from the occasional serious son to strident, comic, and rasping.
Directed by Ben Stock and Music Directed by Paul Knight for JST’s Footprints Festival Dora’s designed by Louie Whitmore with a glam curtain. Lighting by Johanna Town’s a thing of suitably garish violets and drenched creams, then deep orange, yellow, lime and so on.
It’s that curtain from which Ashe emerges telling us she’s Dora Broadbent, spinning off star-names who also changed their names, and how when she wanted to grow up and be an actress. You can’t do both’ her mother ripostes but she was ambitious for Dora, so at ten she’s doing the splits (no, we’re getting that later, a running gag) and at twelve as a chicken learning what ‘stage hands’ actually means.
After some trouble being a stage manager. Dora chooses ‘Bryant’ but someone left off the ‘T’ so that’s her life struck. ‘You should have stuck to your original name’ says Oliver reflecting on his new marriage. ‘Plowright… Broadbent… Plowright….’ Ashe gets Olivier’s orotund basso. But her name’s above the title so too late.
We’re in 1941. ‘Femininity’ rhymes with ‘virginity’ and ‘they always manage to stay in their clothes… why do I always end on the tiger skin?’ Wartime ENSA follows. And we get the usual Every Night Something Awful – an affectionate tribute. Ashe at this point proleptically runs us through everything Dora’s managed including the RSC.
‘Ten Good Years’ follows. A sad litany of a woman’s life from 31-41… and we’re on an accumulator of decades: ‘Joan Collins ain’t exactly chopped liver.’ And parts in films: always a woman in plastic mac and high heels, protesting her lot. There’s badinage with Knight and we get the plastic mac.
In a Dietrich accent and mac Ashe sings the minor-keyed waltz-rhythmed ‘By the Banks of the Seine’, with comic lyrics, a really good tune and a superb pun on ‘now I own all the Banks of the Seine’ where she’s left everything by a rich man called Gerald. It’s n of the most characterful songs but also memorable, and it’s a pity there aren’t some more of these in Dora’s songbook.
After Dora plays Sybil in Private Lives Coward casts her as a barmaid in his Peace in Our Time and after eyebrow critique he asks her to premiere his song ‘Don’t make fun of the festival’. This’ll be 1951. Courted and married Dora says she thinks wedlock is in the Lake District. But he doesn’t want to let anyone know they are just married. A cricketer from Ashton under Lyme William ‘catches everything she throws’. She gets her husband’s name wrong. It’s not Fred it’s Bill Knight informs her. ‘Along came Bill….’ It’s a kind of in-joke with anyone who knows about Dora’s career. Dora was prone to scatty moments offstage, but onstage she was sovereign. We get courtship details.
A P Herbert’s The Water Gipsy has her starring. Tasked with learning a song overnight she writes it on her arms sticks them out, stays rigid and stops the show. A song on naming ‘Why did you call me Lily?’ satirises the over-hasty naming process followed by a portentous role and um…. half the splits.
Pregnancy, losing her baby, going back to work too soon a breakdown follows. And another pregnancy that fails. Adoption follows. ‘Considering I’m no better than I should be’ another match of minor-hued melody with lines like ‘there’s nothing so out of date than a tart with a heart of gold… I should have done better than I have.’ Adopting Daniel they move to Brighton. ‘Because he loves me’ is an upbeat number about a man of 63. Ashe again has the perfect ramp-rasp intonation for these songs with plenty of soprano lyricism in reserve.
That song is of course in A Taste of Honey. The speech of how Helen unhappily married for six months to a man who thinks sex dirty, is seduced by a ‘half-wit’ on the farm and had Jo. It’s the only serious speech we get, though in truth there are few such roles- and in 100 minutes much narration and singing to get through But it’s a resonant moment.
Despite her BAFTA Dora doesn’t get another film for five years but is torn apart by critics straight after Honey for starring in ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ and a successful pregnancy, William.
Knight takes the part of a critic, where Dora’s voice is compared to a blender or ‘cutting through a block of Italian marble with a blunt knife.’ A fourth pregnancy fails and Dr Theatre beckons. Straight plays baffle an audience where she’s expected to sing. ‘I have come here to be insulted’ about wanting to be picked up, puns on the old meaning.
Eammon Andrews’ first invite follows. Recording a Christmas song ‘All I want for Christmas is a Beatle’! getting to No. 20, is judged more cheerfully ‘the best bad song of 1963’. Hello Dolly follows and Dora’s highpoint: a two-year run with a chicken dinner from the chef at the Waldorf as part of the act. Every night. ‘Be Tesco now.’
Christianity and a car accident in Spain follows, knocks Dora into depression for many years, only alleviated by working. ‘Your age. You’ll just have to put up with it’ opines the doctor. Then ‘Something about Mr Henderson’ with its lilting refrain and sad tale of being seduced and given up for her younger double. We’re in the early autumn of Dora’s career with these songs to match. A joke about being picked up by a younger man – and a menstrual cycle and mini coopers gets a private comment in the toilet ‘I thought Dora Bryan was disgusting.’
It gets dark, after having to be taken off after a week, Dora in sedation and ECT kicks medication and drink. She’s in Gipsy. We get a Dora-inflected Ethel Merman standard ‘Everything’s coming up roses’. Very different and naturally not belted out in such an intimate theatre, it’s still powerful with a nice balance between the merman/Bryan rasp and pure lyricism.
At Dora’s funeral her son Daniel regaled this anecdote retold here. Dora crashes into a charity shop. She phones her husband. ‘The bad news is the car’s in with me as well. The good news is I’ve just spotted a wonderful blouse!’ (A very Dora funeral too, with Christopher Biggins almost MCing in a bright blue suit and ‘Hello Dolly’ blasting from speakers).
Parkinson won’t allow a dog on his show with Dora, and we’re with the next generation – a song written by Victoria Wood for As Seen on TV and another challenge: a duet with Knight as a pair of superannuated Dames in ‘Have the time of your life’.
Segued into her later life, the illness of Daniel at twelve, Georgina’s death from alcoholism in her thirties. And the state of Clarges’ kitchen for which she was responsible. Bankruptcy. Dora has to keep working, coping with her husband’s Alzheimer’s. She’s even Mistress Quickly in a Regent’s Park Henry IV/2, not a word of which she understands, and Pinter’s The Birthday Party for which she wins an Olivier. Dora doesn’t tell us if she understands that. The penultimate song’s ‘I love being here with you’. A hairdresser from Manchester tells Dora as she does her hair: ‘They’re all going to that Dora Bryan. Never heard of her, have you?’
And that moment in The Full Monty where she steps forward slightly out of her memory and says ‘I’ve had a lovely time at the Chelsea Flower Show.’ We end with Before the parade passes by’. And those splits…. There’s a moment! And as encore ‘Hello Dolly’ with a soaring line signs Ashe off.
Her characterisation’s perfect, the gamut of voices superbly nuanced, and the show itself, whilst light, points up the darkness with a few telling songs I wish we had more of. But that’s not Dora’s way. Consummate, the complete Dolly-d up experience.