G & I: Going into battle with Gertrude Lawrence
A play by Anton Burge with music and lyrics by George & Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Joseph Meyer, Billy Rose, and Al Dubin
Gertrude Lawrence – Anita Harris
Mary Barrett – Brenda Longman
Grover Emerson – Ben Stock
Announcer – Max Digby
Ninon Jerome – Director
Marjorie Dutton – Musical Director
Marguerite Porter – Choreographer
Jules Botrill – Costume Designer
David W. Kidd – Lighting Designer
Mark Dunne – Sound Designer
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 12 April, 2009
Venue: New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3
Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) was the leading musical-comedy performer of her generation. Although often associated with Noël Coward who wrote songs and shows for her, she was a successful artist in her own right both in the UK and in the US. If not the most alluring nor greatly talented of performers, either in the acting or singing departments, she nevertheless had the personality to make her a true star. In this play illustrated with songs we witness not only one aspect of her life and work during World War Two but also her wilfulness and insistence on getting her own way and how irritating she must have appeared to anyone who didn’t immediately fall in love with her.
She had a love-hate relationship with Coward for most of their working lives on account of her demanding nature. She lived in a world of her own, generous to a fault but unaware of the havoc she might be causing by disregarding her precarious financial situation – she was often in debt to the taxman on both sides of the Atlantic. Although she was not often short of work (to make ends meet she once took on three jobs a day), she was quite often short of a bob or two. Born in South London, she was not from a wealthy family and had a reputation for fruity language.
At age six she gave her first public performance in a seaside concert and won a gold sovereign for her troubles. Four years later she was in a Brixton pantomime which led to a place at the Italia Conti Stage School and subsequently Liverpool Rep where she met Noël Coward. By the age of eighteen she was working for André Charlot understudying Beatrice Lillie in revue.
She continued to work in musicals and married a man twenty years her senior, but they divorced after ten years. In the meantime she had various affairs. In 1923 Coward wrote his first revue for her and their working relationship was sealed. In 1926 she was the first musical performer to appear in an American show, Gershwin’s “Oh, Kay!”, which also came to London. She continued to get starring roles, which culminated in 1931 with her appearance opposite Coward in his “Private Lives”. Coward also wrote “Tonight at 8:30”, a series of one-act plays for them to perform. In 1940 she married theatre-man Richard Aldrich, which lasted until Lawrence’s death in 1952, at the age of fifty-four.
In 1941 Lawrence appeared in “Lady in the Dark”, the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin/Moss Hart musical about a woman undergoing psychiatry. It had a long run and Lawrence stayed with it for three years on Broadway and touring; the show contains what is allegedly her favourite song, ‘Jenny’, about a woman who made up her mind, perhaps something that Gertrude Lawrence never really managed; and here are stories of lesbian affairs just to thicken the plot of her life. Lawrence’s final theatre success was in the original New York production of “The King and I” with Yul Brynner in 1951.
One thing Lawrence was determined to do was entertain the troops during World War Two. Anton Burge’s play at New End Theatre finds her in a Drury Lane rehearsal room preparing to go overseas for ENSA, the Entertainment National Service Association (or more commonly known then as ‘Every Night Something Awful’). Although she appeared to be an exasperating scatterbrain, Lawrence was serious about doing her bit for the war effort, especially as her husband was in the US Navy.
The action of the play is set in 1944 and shows her rehearsing with a pianist who is also an American GI, while Mary, the tough ENSA secretary gets more frantic as Lawrence (or G to her friends) becomes ever more difficult to handle. Finding that G has a husband in the Navy, Mary comments: “He deserves a medal just for getting married to her.”
Anita Harris plays Lawrence with obvious affection, tiresome as she may have been. She rushes-on clad in an ostentatiously expensive fur-coat, toting a basketful of fresh eggs to impress the staff, and starts issuing her orders. She wants to choose the songs but she can’t be bothered with all the War Office forms, and she must have a properly tailored uniform. During rehearsals she reveals not only her unpredictability but also her emotional side, as she recalls memories of the First World War.
On the way she performs songs mostly by Noël Coward such as ‘Parisian Pierrot’ which Coward wrote for her, ‘I’ll see you again’, ‘Someday I’ll find you’, ‘London Pride’ and ‘Mad about the boy’ as well as numbers by the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Al Dubin. She saves ‘Jenny’ for last and it gets the full treatment from Harris – you can see why the troops would have welcomed a visit from such a glamorous figure as Gertrude Lawrence, a bright light in a darkening world.
Although she appeared to live on her own planet, Lawrence was a pretty shrewd performer who knew her limitations. Harris, in better voice than G ever was, recreates the glamour and the star-quality of a woman who had some kind of talent that appealed at a certain point in theatrical history. Harris, herself an underrated talent, goes some way to explaining the enigma that was Gertrude Lawrence. She is aided by Brenda Longman as the fraught and frumpy secretary, Mary, constantly brandishing the swear-box at her unrepentant charge, but who is herself a performer manqué just waiting to drop her clipboards and perform. Ben Stock plays the star-struck GI pianist who can’t wait to get back to his girl.
A small pleasure of a show but a neat one.
- G & I: Going into battle with Gertrude Lawrence is at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, London until Sunday 3 May 2009: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3.30
- Tickets: 0870 033 2733
- New End Theatre