Audiences may fall about laughing at the next Harrogate Dramatic Society theatre production but they’ll be unaware of the challenge facing two of the performers.
The company is staging Glorious! by Peter Quilter and which recounts the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the American socialite and soprano, who famously sang in public seemingly oblivious of her dubious title as the “World’s Worst Singer” until her death in 1944.
An historian once wrote: “No-one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation”.
Which is where the challenges begin for Judi Kenley who takes on the role of Florence and Ben Vaux who has the task of keeping up with her on the piano as her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.
For Judi Kenley, it’s one thing to be an accomplished actor with a trained singing background but it’s another to emulate Florence screeching and warbling her way off-key through extremely difficult arias and other musical pieces.
And for Ben Vaux, an accomplished musician but with no previous acting experience, it’s yet another thing to cope with the unfamiliar rigours of stage work as well as learning lines and managing to stay musically harmonious with a wildly erratic singer.
It’s hard to believe that Florence had such devoted and distinguished followers. Cole Porter, Sir Thomas Beecham and Caruso were among her fans, reinforcing the idea of her status as a cult figure through technical incompetence.
Judi Kenley says that Florence seemed unaware of the public perception of her as a figure of fun. “The play is written as a comedy but as far as Florence was concerned she saw herself as a serious singer and I am approaching the part in that spirit, unaware that people are laughing at me,” she said.
“I did have singing lessons some years ago with the late Bev Jones, the musical director with Harrogate Operatic Players, but the pieces we are performing in the play are very difficult.”
For instance the music for the Queen of the Night aria soars into a high register where Florence would screech the top notes. “So I am seriously considering taking some more singing lessons because I certainly don’t want to damage my voice for the future,” Judi said.
Playing the music for the play can be a testing exercise but it is achievable by someone as qualified as Ben. As well as being a full-time accountant, as a musician he holds a Dip ABRSM, teaches students and is director of music with St Peter’s Church Players. But he finds being in the acting spotlight on stage daunting and “am happier when I’m seated at the piano” he jokes.
“I also have to get into the mindset of Cosme who at first is somewhat appalled by the quality of Florence’s singing but gradually becomes a huge supporter of her work. To a newcomer to acting, coupled with the five or six difficult piano pieces, it’s challenging,” said Ben.
Ben was “discovered” by Judi Kenley when she went to a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to watch her cousin’s daughter, Emma, playing the lead role in the St Peter’s Church Players show. She introduced herself to Ben, talked persuasively about Glorious! ... and the rest is history.
The film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant was greeted with acclaim.
“Glorious!”, directed by Stuart Kellett, opens on Tuesday June 25 at Harrogate Studio Theatre and runs until Saturday June 29. It is on daily at 7.45pm with a 2pm matinee on Saturday.
Tickets are available at the Harrogate Theatre box office: 01423 502116 or at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk