What is it about the lives of 1960s female singers that have piqued the interest of theatre? In recent months Dusty (as in Springfield) has attracted wildly contrasting reviews. Now we have Kathy Kirby: Icon and it is, altogether, a totally different prospect.
The one-act play, which has just opened at Kennington’s White Bear Theatre, has all the makings of great tragic drama if only its writer had been bolder.
At its heart are two blistering performances from a luminous Maggie Lynne as a teenage Kathy Kirby and a Norma Desmondesque portrayal of the elderly faded singer from a magnificent Tina Jones.
There are correlations throughout to the life of another icon, Marylyn Monroe, and both women were the obsession of former bandleader and, later, Kathy’s manager and lover, Bert Ambrose.
I don’t know how well writer Tom O’Brien researched his subject or how much of this play we can take as fact. Certainly Ambrose (a rather splendid and sinister turn by Jeremy Gagan) is depicted as the villain of the piece.
Pretty young Kirby was just 16 when she was taken under the wing of a down-at-heel bandleader whose career was on the slide. Ambrose was 42 years older and his influence lasted until his sudden death in 1971.
A Svengali, he took her as his lover, and, according to O’Brien, gambled away £5m of her money. After his death she became destitute, mentally ill, dabbled in lesbianism and reclusive.
A friend of mine, the late Bruce Benson, tried to engineer a comeback for the star in the 1980s but his hard work amounted to nothing as the singer became more unbalanced.
He spent weeks trying to arrange an interview with her for me but each time we were due to meet she cried off. The more you learnt about her final years the more heartbreaking the tale.
O’Brien crams a lot into an hour-long show but ultimately the production is let down by its brevity and his awfully hackneyed dialogue that contains just about every showbiz cliché in the book.
I’d love him to re-write the story for a three act play and give it room to breath.
Director Tim Heath has come up with some unusual staging – at one point it goes rather ‘60s hippy-trippy with a surreal sequence involving a dead Ambrose in a coffin – but it works, as does having both Kathys on stage at the same time.
Less successful is the flitting about between times. Unless you’d bought a programme you wouldn’t keep up as the story moves around from Kirby’s appearance on Eurovision in 1965, to stage performances in the ‘60s and 1980s, a TV studio circa 1971 and Kathy’s shabby London flat in 2011.
Most of the singing is beautifully done by Maggie Lynne whose innocent gaze and uncanny resemblance to the young star, is quite eerie to watch.
Tina Jones gives an impeccable performance as the fallen diva struggling with poverty, loneliness and mental illness.
There is a rather clumsy dream scene where O’Brien gives her a lot of exposition, a potted “what happened next” after the death of Ambrose, and then a very touching moment at the end where she sits and delivers a moving monologue about her final days.
Also on the bill is David Cantor’s one-act I Play For Me, the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a young (fictitious) maverick rock star who toured with Kirby and fell prey to drug addiction under pressure from Ambrose’s style of management.
There’s absolutely nothing new in the story that hasn’t been said a million times before, only here it staggers along with sluggish direction from Heath and, again, worn-out and overused dialogue.
There’s a good central performance from a charismatic long-haired Eddie Mann who sings, plays the guitar and acts – a guy to watch for the future (the girls will love him) – but his talents are wasted in this.
Kathy Kirby: Icon and its stablemate, I Play For Me, run at the White Bear Theatre until November 8.
Kathy Kirby: Icon
Kathy Kirby: Icon is the tragic, often moving story of the 1960s singing star and features standout performances from Tina Jones and Maggie Lynne but the story is hampered by an overworked and tired script.