Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady – King’s Head Theatre, London

Writer and Director: Maureen Sherlock

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

“Femmes fatales, floozies and tramps” the career of Australian actress Coral Browne is little remembered despite working (and sleeping) alongside some of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. Maureen Sherlock’s gossipy one-woman play Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady opening at the King’s Head Theatre hopes to remedy that by finally placing Coral centre stage.

Receiving the best actress BAFTA in 1984 for her role in Alan Bennett’s drama An Englishman Abroad, Coral realises that few people know who she is. While husband Vincent Price is touring, she sorts through an extraordinary collection of documents and ephemera which she has agreed to donate to a Melbourne Museum. Each piece evokes a memory of her two marriages, many lovers and varied career, an unforgettable life.

Sherlock’s play is lots of fun, full of fantastic anecdotes and interesting insights that not only recounts Browne’s life story but captures something of her cheeky, determined personality. There’s a no holds barred approach to character-creation as Sherlock’s Browne speaks openly and enthusiastically about her many affairs with both sexes, her shameless self-publicity when making her name as young actress arriving in the West End, and her pleasure in every opportunity she created for herself.

Some of it may be scandalous, and enjoying trysts with her lover while living-it up at the Savoy and attending society parties during the Second World War may even seem callous, but Sherlock’s skill is to make us love Coral, to feel as though we’re hearing the reminiscences of a favourite naughty aunt over a few gins. She’s coarse and sweary, naughty and unrepentant, but you know you’re going to have a fantastic night whether she’s telling you about her wild nights with Douglas Fairbanks Jr or standing up to a maudlin Guy Burgess when they met in Moscow.

It’s a shame that the production wasn’t quite ready for its Press Night performance and, in a busy three-show day at the King’s Head, had to use the staging and design from the earlier piece. Amanda Muggleton is a delightful Coral, drawing-out all of the warmth and charm in Sherlock’s script, a grande dame with a commanding voice who slips into her native Australian for comic effect or when imitating her overbearing and over-critical mother.

Unfortunately, Muggleton lost her place on several occasions and as is the way with these things, the more it happens the harder it becomes to recover. Muggleton remained admirably in character throughout and even tried to incorporate the prompts into the performance as best she could, but the second half of the show dipped in energy as she faltered, but this will be a great performance under slightly less pressure.

There are plenty of one-woman shows that celebrate the great actresses of the 1940s and 1950s, and Coral Browne may be less well-known than Dietrich and others, but if you leave wanting to know more about the subject then the show has done its job. She may have played femme fatales and floozies but Sherlock and Muggleton show that Coral Browne was so much more.

Runs until: 3 June 2019 | Image: 

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