I first became aware of Joyce Grenfell whilst at school through her appearances in the original St Trinian’s films, playing the galumphing undercover policewoman, Sergeant Ruby Gates. Throughout her career, she played a series of what she referred to as ‘galumphers’, and yet she was incredibly sophisticated and elegant as a woman, and occasionally that sophistication was allowed to shine in her performances as well.
As a teenager, I was far from sophisticated and elegant, and when asked by my drama teacher to play ‘Lumpy Latimer’ from the Old Girls’ Reunion monologue at an actual old girls’ reunion, she added, ‘There’s rather a lot of you in this’…. Not at all flattering. But sadly she was right…. The monologue is subtitled, The Past is Present, implying that we never escape from who we really are, despite our best efforts, and this has made me smile wryly over the years as I frequently encounter my inner Lumpy in various awkward social situations.
However, Lumpy did me a great favour. I sort of fell in love with Joyce, and as well as that monologue turning into a bit of a party piece, I began to explore Joyce and her world. I have always felt that I was born in the wrong era, so to retreat into her diaries and letters felt like the perfect escape.
Over the years, Lumpy continued to keep me company and one of the Nursery School monologues was added to my repertoire – Joyce wrote a series of these in which she played a hapless nursery school teacher trying to control a room full of unruly toddlers. One of them, George, is always to be found indulging in some unspecified activity which prompts the line, ‘George – don’t do that’ uttered in slightly appalled tones…. Even now, I only have to say the name George, followed by a pause, to elicit giggles from the audience. Joyce wrote of her disappointment that some of her audiences‘ minds immediately turned to a smutty interpretation of this remark, but really, what did she expect?!
Fast forward to 2009. I had given up my acting career and had been working for some time behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House within the costume department, specifically with shoes. And opera shoes at that. Not for ballet, just for the operas. How niche is that? Give me a singer’s name, I’ll tell you their size. Another party trick…However, a period of ill health had caused a little hiatus in my activities, and around that time a group of friends decided to put on a revue evening of songs and sketches. As an encouragement to return to normal life again, they invited me to take part by performing dear old Lumpy that evening.
In many ways, it felt like a huge mountain to climb, but as Joyce once wrote to her mother, ‘There are low moments when one feels one couldn’t possibly be funny, but when I smell the scenery and see the lights, I get a sort of circus horse instinct and all is well’. All was well that night, and a love of performing was rekindled and a joy of making people laugh. Afterwards, the suggestion was made that I expand my repertoire of monologues and even write a one-woman show. Was there some kind of Joyce anniversary coming up that I could aim for? It turned out that the following year was the centenary of her birth.
I ended up booking a week in a venue for the Edinburgh Fringe. It was all I had time for or could afford, and the whole process was a lesson in how not to put on a show! I had never been to the Festival and had no idea where to start. I phoned them for some advice during my lunch break at work and discovered I had less than a week to send in my application. When asked the name of the show, I blurted out the name I’d been considering whilst doing the washing up a few weeks before, ‘Turn Back the Clock’. It was the title of one of her lesser-known songs and conjured up the sense of nostalgia I hoped to create. Sounding like the clueless, middle-aged and hopelessly out of touch woman I was, I took up their brilliant advice and found a venue that hopefully didn’t overreach my ambitions, and booked my slot. I had a venue, a title and two monologues under my belt… Somehow, I had to have a show by August, and there was no turning back.
Against all odds, and with an enormous amount of support from friends and colleagues, not least from Paul Knight my director and co-deviser of the show, and Alice Farnham my accompanist, we were finally ready for Edinburgh. (A couple of little run-throughs before travelling up included one in a friend’s sitting room, every chair in the house utilised, and even the dog in her basket on the front row.) Much to my amazement, the first three shows had already sold out and then so did the rest of the week.
It appeared that there was still a great love for all things Joyce, and it was brilliant to introduce her to a younger audience too. At one point I spotted three generations of a family all falling about laughing as the Nursery School sketch came to a close, and whenever I hear someone say the show has made them want to go away and google her, I feel my work is done.
After the success of Edinburgh, Paul and I developed the show into a two act version and the show toured the country for the next few years to venues ranging from the Lowry in Salford to a cave in Cornwall. I think I could write another play simply based on the stories and misadventures of touring life…
And the show itself seemed to develop a life of its own. People would stay behind afterwards to tell me of their encounters with Joyce or some of the characters in her life, and we also met members of her family (and were mightily relieved that they approved of our efforts). A tip-off from the Opera House head of archives led to an auction of her effects in Oxford. It was a thrill to become the proud owner of the hat she wore to sing Hymn and to meet Janie Hampton, her biographer, who had entered the lots into the auction. Janie later asked me to perform Joyce in a play she had written at the Dartington Festival, and sometime after that brought Joyce’s sister-in-law, Dame Frances Campbell Preston along to see me in action. There is a section in the show where I speak about Reggie Grenfell, and it felt weird and wonderful to be saying those words with his sister sitting only feet away from me.
We had been put in touch with the daughter of William Blezard, her long-time collaborator and accompanist, and Pookie was very generous, inviting us round to go through an incredible musical archive and use some exclusive material. In fact, the first performance of the new two-act show was in her house, with the same piano that her father and Joyce used to rehearse around. Pookie remembers, as a rather solemn little girl, watching Joyce and her dad at work. Noticing her very serious expression, Joyce exclaimed, ‘But Pookie, this is supposed to be funny!’ A few years later, when reluctantly the piano had to be sold, a farewell party was thrown in its honour, and Joyce helped to say goodbye.
My director, Paul, had not only worked with Bill Blezard, but also with Benjamin Britten, another firm friend of the Grenfells. Joyce and Bill had written a song in tribute to him and the 20th anniversary of the Aldeburgh Festival – something only ever performed once until we came along. When the Britten centenary celebrations were launched with a party, Joyce was there again to sing the Bene song – a rather terrifyingly prospect as Dame Janet Baker was in the audience.
The show was relaunched last year under the new name, Ode to Joyce, again seemingly against all odds – this time in the middle of the pandemic. Produced by the Apollo Theatre Company, we performed as part of the Jermyn Street Theatre’s Footprints Festival. There was a small, socially distanced in-house audience all wearing masks, and what turned out to be a rather large online one. We then proceeded to tour around the country again, touched that so many people came to see us and aware that for many, this theatre trip was possibly their first tentative step back to ‘normal’ life.
‘We are both there for joy’, was how Joyce described her relationship with the audience, and here’s hoping this will continue for some time to come.
Ode to Joyce is on tour at the following venues:
17th June – Berry Theatre, Hedge End
29th June – Southwold Arts Centre
30th June – Town & Gown, Cambridge
4th July – Star Inn, Guildford Fringe
For more information, visit www.apollotheatrecompany.com