I was browsing through an article on the late Victoria Wood the other day which was talking about her influences. Pre-eminent among these was Joyce Grenfell the genteel monologist who Wood saw on stage at the tender age of six. “It was the first time I’d seen anyone stand on their own on stage. I didn’t realise that there were jobs like that before – that one could stand on stage and speak, with no props except for a nice frock and people would die laughing.” A show which celebrates the art of this fondly remembered pioneer is playing as part of the ongoing Jermyn Street Footprints Festival. Ode To Joyce re-creates some of Grenfell’s most well-loved work and for good measure mixes in some rarities to provide a relaxed performance which definitely comes from a different era.
Grenfell is beautifully memorialised in this revue type show by Cheryl Knight who first created the production ten years ago as part of a centenary celebration of the performer; it was then called Turn Back The Clock in reference to one of her subject’s popular songs. With minimal setting, just some chairs, an old bakelite telephone and a hatstand containing some of Grenfell’s signature hats, Knight whisks us back to an era when life seemed simpler and a woman’s role was definitely clearly defined – she was and was expected to be, first and foremost a wife, mother and homemaker.
And so, we see a selection of “ladies” attending church, speaking at a Women’s Institute meeting, attending a school reunion and other genteel pursuits. There is, of course, a sketch featuring her nursery schoolteacher character and the immortal line, “George, don’t do that” which, even though you know it is coming, still manages to raise a laugh.
Knight’s vocal impersonation of her subject, honed across many performances, is spot on as are the characters she has Grenfell inhabiting. Dressed in taffeta with the occasional period coat and often wearing white gloves (when did people – apart from the Queen – stop wearing those?) she looks and sounds a picture of upper middle class respectability.
However, there is some hidden steel in there too – rather like Jane Austen, Grenfell was excellent at skewering the very life she led which consisted of luncheons, outings to the Aldeburgh Festival and the thrill of crossing the Atlantic. Little is said of Grenfell’s adherence to her Christian Science principles which is strange because they so much informed her world view that goodness was all around. The sketches are punctuated by letters, often written to Grenfell’s mother, and by some charming songs full of a wistful melancholy accompanied by Paul Knight (Mr Cheryl?) on the pianoforte; he also directs, setting a leisurely pace in keeping with the material.
This is an enjoyable 75 minute celebration of the wit and wisdom of a self-effacing performer who did much to pave the way for a later generation of women to seize the comic nettle. Viewers do need to be aware that, viewed from a contemporary standpoint, some of the lines are a little wince inducing; “It is our duty as women to beautify our surroundings,” is not untypical. Given the context of when such lines were first spoken there was probably a sense of gentle satire about them even then, but they also seem to promote an acceptance of a rather antediluvian position. If nothing else they remind us of what used to be considered the norm but also encouraging in reminding how far things have moved on.