I really don’t know what to make of Florence Foster Jenkins. Transferring to Brighton from an award-winning run in Amsterdam, it’s a back-handed tribute to a musical legend: a woman whose operatic singing was so notoriously awful, she achieved a sell-out retirement recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall. This fragmented musical play recreates some of that night’s events, intercutting them with rehearsals and glimpses of behind-the-scenes dramas.
The play is performed with an unfaltering deadpan humour, never for a moment acknowledging that it’s meant to be funny at all. I have to hand it to Paméla Menzo in the title role: when pianist Jan van Grootheest strikes up the much-anticipated opening bars, her singing proves all we were hoping for. To massacre popular arias so comprehensively must take genuine musical skill.
Wisely though, the atrocious singing is sparingly deployed. Many of the jokes centre around Jenkins’ two long-suffering assistants, who do their best to attend to her numerous whims and generally keep the faltering show on the road. But despite her helpers’ best endeavours, the dauntless singer’s ambition leads to a series of mishaps, including getting stuck hanging from the ceiling and causing the sumptuous set to disintegrate around her. You shouldn’t underestimate the talent and trust involved in performing all these antics: at one point, the dangling Menzo comes wince-inducingly close to kicking van Grootheest in the head.
So at a basic level, this is a high-art version of The Play That Goes Wrong – with the added frisson that the leading lady doesn’t appear to know that anything’s going wrong at all. Throughout the whole show, though, I had the feeling there was a fundamental joke underpinning the piece which I simply didn’t understand. There are extended hiatuses between the big set-pieces, filled with low-key comedy which clearly amused many in the audience far more than it did me. Maybe you need to be familiar with avant-garde opera; or maybe, you just need a sense of humour slightly different from mine.
Speaking personally, I’d have liked to understand a little more about Florence Foster Jenkins herself – to have seen her as a fully-drawn person, not just a figure of fun. There seems to be a moment of terrible self-realisation near the end, but it’s not developed enough to inspire true empathy. And, while Anne van Dorp is memorable at Jenkins’ maid, she again feels more like a foil than a genuine character. Emotionally this production is curiously cold.
So you might love Florence Foster Jenkins, you might hate it, or you might find yourself watching with an air of indulgent bemusement. Whatever happens though, it’s unlikely you’ve seen a show quite like this before – and that, we can all agree, is surely something worth celebrating.