Even before the show officially opened, the Arts Club announced that Glorious! would be held over for another week. There’s only one reason for that. Anyone with even an inkling of Nicola Cavendish’s comic brilliance would know that a play about a woman advertised as “the worst singer in the world,” starring Cavendish, is going to be rib-fracturingly funny.
And sure enough, whenever Nicky is centre-stage as the hopelessly untalented diva, Florence Foster Jenkins—massacring those high notes, or just adjusting her ample bosoms or stretching her calves like a runner about to begin a marathon—the laughter is explosive. But let’s be clear: this is an awful play. The only reason to see it is to revel in Nicola Cavendish’s glorious comic genius.
Jenkins was a real person. She was, apparently, a terrible singer of opera and lieder who thought herself wonderful, a classical Tiny Tim without the ukelele. Her popularity in concert halls and on records seems to have been due to her good-natured campy awfulness. You can see her perform on YouTube.
Playwright Peter Quilter introduces her to us in New York in the early 1940s near the end of her life. She’s a sweet older lady who has the affection and loyalty of her dotty, dog-loving friend Dorothy (Goldie Semple), her thespian companion St. Clair (Allan Morgan), and her angry, comically incomprehensible maid Maria (Dolores Drake). Mostly we see her through the eyes of her new pianist, Cosme (Jonathan Monro), who is at first appalled by her lack of talent but gradually comes to adore her as well.
And Cavendish does indeed make Madam, as they all call her, adorable, whether performing in one of Phillip Clarkson’s wonderful character costumes—as a shepherdess, a Spanish dancer, or an angel with flappable wings—or making a hilarious moment out of nothing. She can matter-of-factly refer to “my voice” with a flutter of her hands and a guttural vocalization that has the audience gasping with laughter. And her singing is unbelievably funny.
But never do you feel that she is mocking the character or condescending to her. After a protester (Heather Lea McCallum) tries to boo her off the stage at a recital, Florence says, “there are people who say I can’t sing but there’s no one who can say I didn’t.” The playwright feels the need to tell us that Florence was conscious of her flaws. But Cavendish’s transparent performance makes the line unnecessary.
The rest of the talented cast does their best with the seriously lame material—fart jokes, stupid gay jokes, booze jokes—while director Christopher Newton lets the rambling script ramble. But Cavendish always saves the day. Glorious!