Julia Bainbridge casts a critical eye over, Say it with Flowers, a Meic Povey and Johnny Tudor production looking at the incredible story of one of Wales’ most enigmatic stars, Dorothy Squires.
Say It With Flowers places a spotlight on the fading years of Welsh performer Dorothy Squires. Once a wealthy, internationally acclaimed singer, Squires was declared bankrupt and lived as a recluse in Rhondda before dying of cancer in 1998. Writer Johnny Tudor draws on details from his personal relationship with Squires in this fictitious play, written in collaboration with Meic Povey and directed by Pia Furtado.
These days, if you mention Dorothy Squire’s name, odds are that it won’t mean much. She was a famous performer who faded into obscurity. But if you’re Welsh and over fifty-five years old, you might have been in the Sherman audience celebrating this retrospective of one of Wales’ old girls. The play begins with Squires standing on the train platform, a broken and destitute elderly woman, reduced to the offer of free accommodation by an old fan, Maisie. Squires’ attempt at a comeback are interspersed with flashbacks to her successful years and we are treated to some delightful singing interludes by a younger version of Dorothy played by Gillian Kirkpatrick.
And really, it’s the singing that saves this production. As a play, it can’t quite make its mind up as to what it is. It starts off as a naturalistic performance, with credible flashbacks, but this seems to go adrift when the ghosts of her brother Freddie and former husband Roger Moore begin to appear and converse with the elderly Dorothy. The play seems to aspire to a sympathetic understanding of Squires’ plight but is reduced to comedy by Maisie’s stereotypical performance of a Valley’s fan; and when the ghosts of Freddie and Moore start to pop out of cupboards, it begins to resemble farce. The play plods on, turning the spotlight onto the arrogance of Squires’ talent; the drugs; the betrayal of Roger Moore and her sacrifice of family for the draw of stardom. It’s a play about a broken woman and, by the end of the performance, she’s still a broken woman with little remorse for the choices she has made. It’s really hard to feel any empathy for Squires and the performance does little to address this. Neither does it address why she’s on Skid Row. If you’ve done your homework, you’d know that Squires was labelled a vexatious litigant because of her predilection for libel cases, and although there’s a brief scene in which Squires tries to persuade her niece to commit perjury, it brushes lightly on the topic so we’re never really sure of the reason for her destitution.
The script feels clunky, particularly the perjury and hospital scenes where there’s too much exposition in the dialogue. The sex scene is gritty but it feels out of context with the rest of the performance and the bad language seems gratuitous, despite Squires’ reputation for a foul mouth. Here, the words feel stilted and unnatural coming out of the elderly Dorothy’s mouth.
Ruth Madoc plays old Dorothy and seems to spend most of the first half of the play in a daze, as though confused at finding herself on the stage. It’s hard for Madoc to raise any empathy for this sad, selfish woman who sacrificed her baby for her work, even when she staggers across the set, clutching her stomach in pain. Attempts to garner sympathy by Madoc brandishing her colostomy bag, are lost in the execution, tending more to pantomime than pathos. Lynn Hunter, as Maisie, gives an energetic performance as a devoted fan, but the predilection for cliché in the script pushes her to over-act the role so that it descends into corny comedy.
The production is redeemed by the cast’s musical performance. Kirkpatrick is totally credible as a young Squires as soon as she sings her first note. Matt Nalton and Aled Pedrickas Moore and Freddie possess fine voices and acquit themselves well. It’s only when Madoc sings a duet with her younger self that the elderly Dorothy arouses any sympathy. It’s a beautiful moment which should come earlier in the play.And it’s the singing that we wanted more of; more from both Madoc and Kirkpatrick’s wonderful voices, especially in the second half of the play. When the ensemble cast sing ‘Say it with Flowers’ as an encore to a standing ovation, there’s no doubt that the mostly mature audience have enjoyed the evening. And, oddly, I enjoyed it too. For, despite the inadequacies of the play, I left the theatre feeling uplifted. I suppose that’s why they call it entertainment.