Pat Kirkwood is Angry by Jessica Walker

Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 2 October 2013

Pat Kirkwood is angry
Pat Kirkwood is Angry by Jessica Walker

This show could easily have passed me by. Sadly although I love songs from films and shows of the 1940s, I had never heard of Pat Kirkwood. I asked a musical friend in her mid-80s if she knew of her, and she said the name was vaguely familiar. As the title of this one-woman show written and performed by Jessica Walker suggests, Pat Kirkwood would have been sad about this too, and angry that the spotlight has not stayed on her as it has on other singers of her time. Dame Vera Lynn was a contemporary of Pat Kirkwood. A compilation of her songs released on CD in 2009 went to the top of the British album charts. No such luck for Pat Kirkwood, who was also a wartime star in Britain.

Jessica Walker came across Pat Kirkwood’s work by chance when she was researching her previous solo show, The Girl I Left Behind Me, about male impersonators in Victorian music hall. Pat Kirkwood had played the most famous of these, Vesta Tilley, in the film After the Ball, and intrigued by her, Jessica Walker started researching her life. Her show Pat Kirkwood is Angry, first put on in 2012 as a co-production with Opera North in association with the Royal Exchange Manchester, was the result. Although billed as a solo show, it depends on the skills of James Holmes – former Head of Music at Opera North – as musical director and accompanist, and of director Lee Blakeley.

If the name Pat Kirkwood is remembered today, it tends to be for her association with Prince Philip. They were introduced by a mutual friend and went out together one night in 1948. Whether anything happened between them subsequently is not known, but the suspicions have overshadowed  the singer’s career, and are possibly the reason why she never received an Honour. Did she mind? Jessica Walker’s research made her feel she did, and this show aims to redress the balance and show a wider picture.

It is a tour de force, enthralling throughout. We move seamlessly from speech to song and back again. The songs, chosen from her recordings,  include Noel Gay’s ‘You’ve done something to my heart’ and Cole Porter’s ‘Just one of those things’. They punctuate and illustrate Pat Kirkwood’s life and career most aptly. Considering the number of films, pantomimes, revues and TV shows in which she appeared in a career spanning over 60 years, it is shocking to me that her name is all but forgotten. Not all of her work was successful and she had her share of tragedy, including losing her father and second husband Sparky within weeks of one another. But she always bounced back, and, as portrayed in this show at least, had a wicked sense of humour.  Talking about her role as Vesta Tilley she says: ‘Try acting an allergy to rhubarb with conviction!’

She played panto for the money, including the Prince to Julie Andrews’ Egg in Humpty Dumpty in 1948 and liked variety more than straight plays, but deeply resented being called a showgirl, saying she was ‘not a member of the chorus’! She was, nonetheless, very happy to quote theatre critic Kenneth Tynan’s comment that her legs were ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

Jessica Walker brings the woman behind the songs to life, injecting vitality and not a little cattiness into her comments about those performers she considered less starry than herself. Her feelings about third husband Hubert Gregg, who after 23 years left her for a younger woman, are perfectly conveyed in Jessica’s belting rendition of the Rodgers and Hart song ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, conveying first adoration and subsequently disillusionment. I have to admit that I thought that Jessica or James Holmes had penned some additional words until I looked up the lyrics and found that the later lines, including the immortal words ‘Those ants that invaded my pants, finis’ really were part of the original song!!

Pat Kirkwood was treated as a star as recently as 1994, when, three years before her death and in her last public appearance, she was billed as Special Guest Star in the revue Noel/Cole: Let’s Do It at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In her last years she developed Alzheimer’s, but could still remember every line of her songs. Jessica Walker acts her decline with sensitivity, becoming physically bent and shuffling in a believable and unparodied way.

Shortly before the Chichester show Pat Kirkwood was the recipient of the big red book from Michael Aspel in the TV show This is Your Life. Her ascribed reactions to the fawning guests are beautifully acerbic, her anger always tinged with wit.

It was a shame that the performance at the RWCMD was not better attended. There were some older people there, who had definitely heard of Pat Kirkwood and clearly enjoyed hearing her old songs. I wondered though about the absence of younger people, of whom there are so many at the college studying music and drama. It would have taught them a lot, both in terms of the story and Jessica Walker’s performance. Was it just that they’d never heard the name and so didn’t bother to find out what the show was about? If so, it’s such a pity. Pat Kirkwood would have been sad, and quite possibly, angry too.