Fishhouse Theatre were the word-of-mouth hit of last year’s Buxton Fringe, with their tender play Cloaks. This year, ambitiously, they're back up at the Lee Wood Hotel with three shows each day. Being Julie Andrews features one of the stars of Cloaks, Lesley Emery, in a deeply personal story – her own. As she puts it at the start, she wants to share her story so she can get on with her career as an actress, telling other people's.
In this chronological tale, Emery begins with her parents: how they met, married and conceived her (you wouldn’t believe how pregnancy tests were done in the fifties), and raised her with her siblings in a strictly religious home. It’s sweetly done, and retains our interest though what appears to be a relatively conventional tale.
However, Emery’s introduction has led us to expect something out of the ordinary, and of course it duly comes. It’s no spoiler to share that life is not straightforward for Emery, and the unflinching candour with which she shares her tale earns immediate respect.
Throughout, Julie Andrews is a touchstone for Emery, whether she's checking the car window to see if she looks at all like her or planning her mothering style as a cross between Maria and Mary Poppins. It doesn’t feel like a gimmick: the songs from The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady (Andrews was in the stage version) are a source of comfort, and Emery turns to them in sadness and in joy. As she matures, she realises that perhaps there isn’t a Captain von Trapp – and sometimes even Julie Andrews isn’t enough.
Emery has a nice singing voice, and the musical interludes work well. She makes great use of props: scarves make her a bride or a nun or represent a baby, and the gentleman’s umbrella is a nice touch too. It’s a well-structured play, with a regular switch of focus to the third person – framing the story, explaining how others see Emery and determine how she should behave. The pressure on her is clear; conformity to societal norms is a running theme, and we learn how Emery is forced into behaving in line with others' expectations, to her own eventual detriment.
On the day I attended there are some fluffed lines, and it could be a little slicker, but it's an incredibly brave play to write and perform – being so intensely personal. I spent much of the second half with a massive lump in my throat, so make sure to bring tissues. Yes, the ending is cheesy and enormously cliched, but it's tremendously uplifting too. Just go for it!