The showbiz veteran recovers from a shaky start to deliver a heartrending solo cabaret that melds the personal and political
Never has a show been more aptly named. Kathleen Turner has for most of her 41 years in show business been Hollywood royalty. When she walks on stage and opens her mouth for this solo cabaret it is as if the MGM lion – the one whose snarl has opened a century of films – has leapt down her throat.
Out comes a voice that that prowls from deep roar to deeper purr. She seems to have a cold. She appears to muff a cue. She informs us that cabaret is supposed to begin at the beginning, and launches into an anecdote about her unrequited passion for a boy in Venezuela, where her diplomat father was stationed. She sings Ella Fitzgerald’s Let’s Fall in Love. It’s heart-in-mouth stuff, and not for the right reasons – hers is not a voice equipped for young love. Is this going to be the most agonising outing of an ageing star since Norma Desmond walked down that staircase in Sunset Boulevard?
The anecdotage at least feels secure. “When I first went to New York,” she tells us, “every theatrical lead was a soprano and that was never going to be me. I said, ‘No, I just act.’” Wise woman, we think. “I do tend to jump in the water and find out if I can swim,” she says, a little later. Well, yes. Then she’s into a story about performing a show about Emily Dickinson with the Martha Graham Dance Company. It involves an excruciating costume failure and Mikhail Baryshnikov confronting her in her dressing-room at half time, dressed only in a skimpy yellow towel. “He said, ‘You should dance’ and I said, ‘Sure, like you should act.’” Cue Sinatra’s Pick Yourself Up.
There are lots of stories of being poor, cold and accident-prone while working her way up the career ladder. “These guys have heard this before,” she says, gesturing at her admirably reactive three-piece band, “but I had a disagreement with Francis Coppola. He said would I mind if he directed from his trailer. I said, you go direct in your trailer and I will act in mine.”
It’s all quite amusing but at half-time I was wondering if I’d have stayed, had I been anything less than an uberfan. Then something miraculous happens. She finds her voice and performs Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? as if it were written not in the Great Depression but in Trump’s America. She describes what it was like to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the height of her career and somehow manages to turn Sondheim’s most lachrymose ballad, Send in the Clowns, into a growl of rage on behalf of all older women in an industry that spurns them.
She owns the music. She is magnificent, this battered star with her leonine voice, which unites the personal and the political, taking possession of standards that may have been sung better but never more meaningfully. She turns the mood on a sixpence, from skittish to heartrending and back again. I only wish that Andy Gale’s staging had been more clearly framed, to make it clear from the start how much more Turner was going to offer than a sentimental dawdle down the streets where she lived. This is My Way reframed by Jessica Rabbit, who – as an opening voiceover montage reminds us – gave Turner one of her most memorable movie lines: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”
- At the Other Palace, London, until 6 May. Box office: 020-7087 7900. Then touring.
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