CORAL BROWNE: THIS F**KING LADY
CORAL BROWNE: THIS F**KING LADY, Prospect Productions at the Adelaide Fringe, in the Clubroom at the German Club. Photography: above, Genevieve Mooy and, below, Coral Browne’s favourite photo of herself by Helmut Newton
Having just emerged from the hothouse of the main festival, trying to work out what to do on the Fringe is frankly, overwhelming (something like 1000 shows and events). The choice is bewildering, so when old friend and mega-star Miriam Margolyes barrelled into town (to do Peter and the Wolf with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra) she also said, “Let’s go and see this show about Coral Browne, darlings, I knew her you know.” So off we went to the German Club.
From West Footscray to the West End, Coral Browne was one of Australia’s most notable exports of the 20th century. Born into the genteel snobbery of an England fixated mother in 1913, young Coral fell into acting at 18 and into the arms of JC Williamson shortly thereafter. An early adopter of media, Coral’s headlines already filled a scrapbook by the time she sailed for Blighty, aged 20, with mother trailing along.
With a letter of praise from Dame Sybil Thorndyke to open doors, Coral was barely fazed when they remained shut. Dame Sybil didn’t remember her and advised her to go home, while impresarios weren’t impressed by the scrapbook of reviews. Naturally, it wasn’t long before she was on a stage and it was one of those bound for the West End.
In a one hour, one woman show, written by Maureen Sherlock, Coral Browne’s story is brought to sparkling life by Genevieve Mooy – who bears a remarkable resemblance to the Queen of Pottymouth. She has also finessed Browne’s hilarious penchant for lacing her every sentence with effs and blinds – in the most ladylike manner.
Browne (she added the E to plain old Brown after being advised by a numerologist that her lousy luck would change if she did – and it did) was a bad girl at a time when that was genuinely daring and her affairs were legion and ambisextrous. She had genuine loves with women and gay men as well as famously marrying and living happily ever after with the Emperor of Schlock Horror, Vincent Price.
With a few props and great charm, Mooy skips blithely through one of the more interesting and unlikely lives of 20th century showbiz. For instance, Browne virtually stole Auntie Mame from Rosalind Russell (who didn’t mind and there is also another hair raising story to go with that movie).
She appeared at the Old Vic and the National but favoured the commercial possibilities of the West End. She also appeared in some of the worst British movies ever made but had good roles in good films such as Dr Crippen, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone and The Ruling Class.
Browne was renowned for a sharp and often bawdily witty turn of phrase which, funnily enough, has never worked well on the page: biographies have been dutiful and dull in the main. Genevieve Mooy, however, makes it clear why Coral Browne was so funny and so shocking. The account she gives of the making of The Killing of Sister George is a delight, particularly when she describes the twiddling of Susannah York’s nipples.
Finally, of course, there is the late flowering of an up-and-down career with the true story of Browne’s meeting with mega-spy Guy Burgess in Moscow – made into the fabled An Englishman Abroad, a film by Alan Bennett. And the last chapter – Dennis Potter's Dreamchild in which Browne played the 80-year-old Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
This F**king Lady is a surprise, even for those who either remember or know something of Coral Browne. In Mooy's hands she turns out to be a woman of substance rather than the flibbertigibbet so many gossip and social columnists made of her. And of course, there’s “mummy” – what a frightful old bat, with or without the mink stole and hat (bought for her, like everything else, by her long suffering daughter). Recommended.