Did you know a play has been created celebrating the life of Coral Browne (aka Mrs Vincent Price No.3)?
Making its London debut recently at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, London, This F***ing Lady! stars Amanda Muggleton as the Melbourne-born actress who lit up the London stage from the late-1930s to the 1960s (her Lady Macbeth is legendary) and became pals with the likes of Alec Guinness and Robert Morley, as well as Joe Orton, Barry Humphries and Cecil Beaton (one of her many lovers before Vincent came along).
But her crowning achievement was the 1983 BBC TV drama An Englishman Abroad – about her real-life encounter with Cambridge spy Guy Burgess – which was written for her by Alan Bennett, and scored her a BAFTA in 1984.
A great wit and supremely stylish, Coral fell head over heels in love with Vincent Price after he electrocuted her in the cult horror classic Theatre of Blood. But what she didn’t know was that their affair ended his 24-year marriage to his second wife Mary.
I attended the opening night of the play with Vincent and Mary’s daughter, Victoria and while she admitted it was slightly surreal to be sitting in a theatre watching someone playing her ‘wicked stepmother (as she affectionately called her), Victoria felt Amanda really captured Coral’s charisma and expletive-laden wit – and there were a couple of moments when she thought it was actually Coral telling one of her own anecdotes.
Although the show only had a short run (over three weekends), I just had to return for the final performance. And I must say that Amanda (who played one of my favourite characters – Chrissie Latham – in the Oz TV drama Prisoner Cell Block H back in the 1980s) shone even better than her first night (which she admitted was a little under-rehearsed). But the good news is that the show is set to return (but nothing is confirmed as yet). And when it does, I do encourage you to go see it.
In the meantime, our guest reviewer, Ali Pye (who lives for the London stage), gives her take on this vivid portrait of the unapologetically lusty woman that Barry Humphries described as ‘magnificently Melbourne’…
ALI PYE REVIEWS CORAL BROWNE: THE F***ING LADY!
1984 – The BAFTA TV Best Actress Award looks like a photo finish between stage Dames Maggie and Judi. The surprise winner on the night, pipping them at the post in an Alan Bennett Cold War spy two hander in which the dramatic highlight is the measuring of an inside leg, and actually portraying herself twenty years previously with little more than light foundation and a series of startling hats, the name in the golden envelope elicits a playful chorus of “Who the **** is Coral Browne…?!”. If asterisks trouble you, this may not be the show you’re looking for.
An overnight sensation for her victory turn in “An Englishman Abroad”, Coral had in fact been sensational on stage and screen for over 50 years.
Amanda Muggleton’s one-woman tour de force of nature performance launches in this moment. Rising from the audience like Aphrodite from the waves, if Aphrodite wore a white satin pant suit and low-strung double pearls, to accept the accolade, turn to the audience and start the regale.
Flamboyant, fabulous, formidable, feisty, flirtatious, other words starting with “F” fly across the intimate little set in the snug back-bar Kings Head Theatre.
Coral by the mid 1980’s resides in Santa Monica as the adored Mrs Vincent Price, an inseparable Hollywood couple since “The Theatre of Blood” film some decade earlier in which he murdered her.
If the BAFTA award acceptance speech was the pinnacle, then the first clamber up the theatrical foothills was coming second in the Ballarat Eisteddfod, reciting Longfellow’s Hiawatha, as a 12-year-old Australian schoolgirl. Coral was bitten early by the performance bug.
Up ‘em, at ‘em and frequently among ‘em, Muggleton sashays across the stage and through at least four rows of audience, fearless, forthright, her platinum mane a frosted crest, She slouches shyly into the girl from the genteel Melbourne suburb of (Far) Kew, just some days off the London-bound boat in 1934 knocking tentatively on the door of a magnificently indifferent Dame Sybil Thorndyke. Through three decades of theatrical star turns and finally to stride triumphant across the West End blasted heath storming all the great Shakespeare heroines against Gielgud, Redgrave, Richardson and Guinness.
Coral’s command of Lady Macbeth became so authoritative that younger actress regarded her as a go-to-guide (“Keep your eyes open during the sleepwalking scene, dear…”). An early foray on screen saw her cast as a sassy spy attempting the unlikely seduction of George Formby. The position of his little ukulele is not recorded in the annals of film history. But Coral’s career trajectory was sealed as the flirty friend and slinky adulteress and dipsy devil-may-care girl about town.
Maureen Sherlock’s punchy little seventy five minute drama ‘This F***ing Lady’ promotes some nuanced playing. The jump from Lady Macbeth famously “giving suck” to a lost infant segues nicely into the reflective dip of the head as Coral confesses to her maternal failings, an admitted “wicked stepmother” to her real-life step-children. Her relationship with her own needy parent, comfortably contained in a domestic arrangement that veers towards the “high security twilight home” of Coral’s fellow exile from Melbourne, Dame Edna Everage, seeps sadly through later scenes.
Pre – #Me Too, the young actress abroad embraces the theatrical bed-hopping, post-matinee trysts and torrid marital affairs with a “Why not?” pragmatism. The quality of the writing shines through the fog of wartime bunk-ups. Coral’s delicious self-depreciation never sharper than in defining herself, involved in an extensive dalliance with theatre impresario Firth Shephard four storeys up in the bombed out Savoy Hotel, as “Shephard’s Bush”.
Beneath the glitter and the glam, and the name-dropping of top end labels when it comes to undies gifted by the studios (Balmain a favourite), shines the flinty business woman. Spotting the potential of, and securing the rights to, ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ in 1940 brought in steady royalty cheques for the rest of her life. The throwaway line and accompanying wink that she improbably borrowed £3000 from her dentist to do so is practically a play in itself.
Muggleton’s ferocity never falters, mimicking the bravery of Coral, never less than a trooper. Lead actress in the 1969 production of Orton’s ‘What the Butler Saw’, set in a madhouse and requiring at least two of the cast to entirely remove their clothes, cautiously opening in Brighton she was deserving of a medal at the very least. Her great friend’s Alan Bennett’s assessment of the south coast harridans never truer than when presented with an innuendo-laden smutfest climaxing (in every sense) with an over-sized model of Winston Churchill’s phallus raised heavenwards.”The sleek Sussex matrons sit poised in the stalls like greyhounds in the slips. The first ‘f***’ and they’re a mile down the sea front, streaking for Hove….” recites Muggleton, perched giggling on the very edge of Row B, conspiratorially certain that theatre punters in 2019 Islington are considerably less fragile.
It is a glorious life lived onstage, backstage and with gleeful outrage and this work serves the subject well. Quibbles with the staging amount to the comparative unlikeliness of regal Coral Browne packing her own suitcases, although the notion frames the reminiscences, allows the flicking through of photo scrapbooks and reading aloud of boxed love letters. As likely frankly as abandoning the London stage while the Blitz rained down to tinker with an ambulance, plant turnips or tap out semaphore at Bletchley.
She is part of a lost generation, here celebrated with vibrancy and enthusiasm. It is fitting that the last scene of An Englishman Abroad shows a debonair Alan Bates as Guy Burgess striding through wintery Moscow, a prisoner in all but name, resplendent in the Saville Row threads that Coral Browne has facilitated for him. The show is going on.
They have left the stage now, the roaring crowd filed out. Coral died in 1991. The eulogy famously delivered at her funeral service by Barry Humphries encapsulated not only this f***king lady but the times through which she passed.
To paraphrase, they leave behind emptiness, a gap, a void, and a trough… The World is indeed a good deal less. This cracking little one-woman show f***ing rocks.