Late in life, and late in her career, Florence Foster Jenkins sold out America’s premier concert venue, Carnegie Hall. Many prospective audience members were turned away as there was no more room to fit them, or their eagerly expectant ears, into the auditorium. Yet Foster Jenkins was not a great singer, she was not even an adequate singer, she was arguably the worst songstress of all time. Matthew Amer met Peter Quilter, the playwright who has turned her story into a stage production, Glorious!, which is currently playing at the Duchess theatre…
Peter Quilter is sat alone in the deserted bar of the Aldwych theatre. In his brown jumper, waterproof jacket and, with his stylish rucksack accessory, Quilter looks more like a travelling tourist visiting the West End on a flying trip, than a playwright here to open his second play of the year. The silence that hangs in the empty theatre bar early in the day is a rare commodity in the presence of Quilter. It soon becomes clear that his love of language is not reserved for the stage; he speaks very freely himself!
Before I can stop him – or try to stop him, as Quilter, when chatting ‘full steam ahead’ is one of nature’s unstoppable forces – he is speaking freely and protectively about Maureen Lipman, the much-loved doyenne of the British stage who leads the cast of Glorious!, playing the vocally challenged Foster Jenkins: “People can think whatever they like about the play, but the one indisputable thing is how good she is. There’s a small list of comedy actresses who can sing badly – three big arias a night – and not ruin their voices, and be really funny doing it.” It is lucky for Quilter, then, that he got the actress at the very top of that very short list.
"You might as well invite aliens; they could come up with anything."
The marvellous Lipman, whose last London engagement was the rather more tuneful Thoroughly Modern Millie, actually had quite a large say in bringing Quilter’s play to the stage. Instead of approaching a producer, Quilter sent his work directly to the actress he envisaged as the lead. Lipman must have read the script almost as soon as she heard the papery thud of envelope on doormat, as she rang Quilter the next day to accept the role. With the support of his first choice leading lady, Quilter approached producer Michael Codron – in Quilter’s words “the King of plays” – and the Glorious! bandwagon started rolling.
The story of Glorious’s conception begins with a cassette of Foster Jenkins’s singing which Quilter heard, and which ignited his curiosity. Though many people had heard of ‘the first lady of the sliding scale’, his thirst for knowledge could only be partially quenched as there was very little written about the sour-sounding soprano; a handful of magazine articles and even fewer reviews of the Carnegie Hall concert. In fact, this suited the playwright perfectly, as from the tiniest details – articles described a ‘fey young pianist’ and an ‘elderly actor boyfriend’ who ‘loudly passed through the room’ – he built up the characters and the story. This is not to say that the play is fiction. In fact, according to Quilter, all of the weird and wonderful events described in the plot actually took place in the life of Foster Jenkins: “She was a great character, a modern and mad 1940s woman. She got up there and did concerts in front of thousands of people and everybody loved her; the fact that she couldn’t sing a note seemed irrelevant.” While many in the audience may well have found it entirely relevant that Foster Jenkins had less grasp of tunes than a chemist whose cold sweets keep disappearing, this does not change the affection in which she was held.
When I meet Quilter at the Dickens Tea House, the much livelier venue where he has spent much of his week, the playwright is slightly pre-occupied with the relative proximity of the London press night. The show has already been seen by the press while on tour, but London and the national critics, as Quilter observes, are a different matter: “You might as well invite aliens; they could come up with anything.” Unlike many in the theatre world who religiously refuse to ruminate over reviews, Quilter likes to know what everyone says about his work: “If there’s a review in Gardener’s Weekly, I’ll read it. Not from an ego point of view or from a masochistic point of view; just because playwriting is a business, not a hobby. The fact is that the reviews will be partially responsible for everything that will happen to that play for the next 10 years.” When he puts it like that, moving, as he does so, from the ever-jovial chatting machine to an extremely serious businessman, it is easy to see the stresses and strains that press nights exert on everyone in a production, not just those on the stage.
Quilter reserves a little vitriol for one particular publication, which will remain blissfully nameless, which he is sure will not like his play: “If it’s got the word f***ing in the title, it’ll get a good review. If it’s got some sex and some nudity and some decapitation and some heroin [they] will love it. If it’s a commercial comedy aimed at a mainstream audience, or a revival of a 20 year-old play, they always hate it. It pisses me off. They should be judging things within the context of what they are. To me, it is like going to a musical and saying ‘I don’t like music’!”
All this talk of reviews and critics is enough to make you believe that Quilter is struggling for success. In fact, his most recent play, which opened in Australia as Glorious! was beginning tour previews here, received great acclaim. End Of The Rainbow stars 2005 Olivier Award nominee Caroline O’Connor as Judy Garland. Unlike many of the shows and films about the American icon, it focuses on the end of her life: “No-one had done that six weeks and I thought it was just begging for it: the end of her career, bankrupt, doing concerts, forgetting her lines, a new fiancé.”
"Maureen Lipman: a little bit mad. Caroline O’Connor: mad as a fish!"
Quilter is a great believer that the key to success is finding a fantastic idea, but without the cast to do the ideas justice, his scripts are just words on a page. Quilter admits that he has struck lucky with his last two casts: “You work with Caroline O’Connor and Maureen Lipman and the whole play spins off to a whole new level. Brilliant! Both of them!” There is always the argument, of course, that in this world you make your own luck. With many fewer plays that revolve around strong leading ladies than there are those that have males in the lead, it may be easier to attract the upper echelon of actresses to a role than it would be with a leading men. Quilter has also recognised this possibility and intends to use it to his advantage in the future.
Writing another female lead is one thing, but filling it with actresses of the quality of Lipman and O’Connor is another. Though both marginally eccentric – “Maureen Lipman: a little bit mad. Caroline O’Connor: mad as a fish!” – both actresses share a sense of perfectionism: “They’re really worried that the performance wasn’t as good as it could be, really upset if they feel it wasn’t 100%, only satisfied if it is 150%, up all night thinking about it.” While Caroline O’Connor would arrive at the theatre at 9am to prepare for an evening performance, Maureen Lipman sent Quilter essays each night detailing what went right, what went wrong and what could be improved. The hard work clearly paid off for both of them.
Quilter’s own story is almost as fantastical as that of Foster Jenkins; there can’t be many other West End playwrights who started their working lives as jesters before making the move to children’s television, as Quilter did, starring opposite a mute rag doll, Peggy Patch, in Playdays. Though he stayed in the job for over a year, Quilter’s sarcastic edge didn’t always go down well with the BBC directors who took their job very seriously: “They’d go ‘Peter, we really don’t have time for the sarcasm. Can you go in there, cock-a-doodle-do and sing Old MacDonald Had A Farm!’”
After his writing potential was spotted in a piece he wrote for some friends performing at the Old Red Lion, Quilter was asked to join a Royal Court writer’s group. It was here that he really started to think about writing professionally: “Because they were taking me seriously as a writer, I started taking myself seriously.”
But the shores of Blighty, and London in particular, were not conducive with the way Quilter worked, so he left behind the mortgage, family, friends, constantly ringing phone, council tax and endless stream of free theatre tickets, and upped sticks to the much more sedate environs of Tenerife: “It’s warm all year round, I’ve got a view of the ocean on one side, a view of vine fields on the other side and no-one ever phones me. I do all my communication by email, sit on the terrace, drink very strong coffee and walk my dog.”
The relaxation and uninterrupted nature of living on a small Spanish island certainly seems to have worked for Quilter as in the first six months of moving to the sun-drenched costa he had written both End Of The Rainbow and Glorious!. By his own admission, both pieces were vastly superior to anything he had previously written, though he modestly reserves judgement on whether these two new plays are actually good. Instead, he says of the possible success of his newest London offering: “It’ll be [due to] Maureen Lipman and the fact that it’s just such a joyful, happy, heart-warming story which says ‘F**k it! Do what you want to do. Don’t worry about people telling you you’re crap’. That’s it. That’s the show. Glorious!”