Actress and singer FIONA-JANE WESTON’s one-woman tribute to remarkable women began in 2009 with the show 20th Century Woman – The Compact Cabaret.
Since then she has produced a tribute to the heroic women of the First and Second World Wars, Wartime Women – The Khaki Cabaret; Looking For Lansbury, an homage to stage and screen veteran star Angela Lansbury; and a show which focuses on Shakespeare’s most significant female characters to coincide with the Bard’s 400th anniversary.
Musical Theatre Review Michael Darvell caught up with Weston to discuss her work ahead of the first performance of her new show, Heroines, which features elements from all three shows at The Pheasantry in the King’s Road, Chelsea on 24 October.
How did you choose the contenders for Wartime Women? Did you have a long list of possibilities, which you whittled down to a workable number?
I did indeed. Of all my one-woman shows, Wartime Women was the most challenging to programme. I had to decide which wars to cover, which occupations the women did, and of course which women.
A further particular challenge was filtering through the fabulous material. I had to find pieces which had some lightness and humour, even in tragic circumstances, especially for the First World War section. It would have been all too easy to make a grim, earnest and depressing show, and I was determined to celebrate their resilience, courage and, in certain cases, joyous personalities.
The Wartime Women songs include ‘Rosie the Riveter’, a Lili Marlene medley, Jacques Brel’s ‘Marieke’ and ‘We’re Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’. Is it true that, apart from the Brel, most of these songs once popular are now perhaps forgotten? Did you find that when you performed them originally?
I did not include ‘Rosie the Riveter’ in Wartime Women, as it happens. I had already had a beautiful poignant song about a girl working in the munitions factories called ‘The Girls With Bright Yellow Hands’ – so ‘Rosie’ was edited out at the time (one of my many difficult choices). Doing Heroines now has given me a chance to include it, and I have given it to my MD William Godfree to sing.
But to answer your question, many of the songs, and certainly some of the poems I recite, are now largely forgotten or mainly remembered by the older generation.
The arrangement of ‘Lili Marlene’ is my own, with the help of another MD, Richard Link. In it, I include spoken word about the history of the song itself, explaining and demonstrating how different artists deployed the song in the war effort.
The artists I highlight are Marlene Dietrich, who secretly broadcast it in German to the Nazi troops to undermine their morale; Swedish singer Lale Andersen, who originally sang it for the Germans and was later imprisoned in a concentration camp herself; and German Jewish actress Lucie Mannheim, who broadcast a blood-curdling version for the BBC.
Ethel Smyth and Hannah Snell who wrote ‘The March of the Women’ to music attributed to Handel are fairly unknown. What is their story?
Ethel Smyth was a composer and prominent Suffragette. She wrote ‘The March of the Women’ to be the anthem of the Suffragette movement, and it was sung by the women on their marches and at their rallies. I found a delicious story of Ethel leaning out of a window in Holloway prison conducting the other incarcerated Suffragettes in the yard with her toothbrush!
In Heroines, I am taking a piece from Looking For Lansbury using ‘The March of the Women’. Angela Lansbury’s grandfather George Lansbury was one-time leader of the Labour Party and Mayor of Poplar, and was imprisoned for his support of the Suffragette movement.
During the song, I cite a real article written by an East End Suffragette for The Women’s Dreadnought (a feminist magazine of the time), in which she described one of the movement’s greatest marches – the Great Procession from Poplar to Parliament. In it, she talks about George Lansbury’s involvement both in the march and in getting them into Parliament to present their case to the Prime Minister.
I came across Hannah Snell while researching in the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Hannah became a Chelsea pensioner, even though her true gender was discovered. My collaborator on the piece, Tim Heath, found a recording of the Handel song she re-wrote the words to when she appeared in uniform on stage (yes, she too was a sort of cabaret singer), and so her story was put to the same music by my director Patrick Lambe.
You even pay tribute to your own grandmother. Which song or reading is she associated with?
My grandmother was a child in the First World War and recalled seeing Zeppelins, including one that caught fire and she saw its occupants dropped into the sea below. Also, there is an anonymous poem dating from the time of the Second World War called ‘I’ve Finished My Blackout’. Grandma was almost undoubtedly the world’s worst needle worker – I mean seriously bad. And if she didn’t write that poem, she should have done!
You were lucky enough to be part of the Yale Cabaret Conference where you were tutored by the great Amanda McBroom whose songs you include in your Shakespeare programme. Did these songs come out of the conference or had you known them before?
No, these songs didn’t come out of the conference – I only became aware of them during one of Amanda’s visits to London. She sang one or two of them in her own programmes and said they were from a show she had written called Lady Macbeth Sings the Blues. I asked her about them, and knowing my work, she said they would suit me. I am, of course, utterly delighted and honoured she is letting me sing them.
What appealed to you particularly about Angela Lansbury – was it her acting, her singing, her characterisations or just her personality?
Not long after the conference and doing my show 20th Century Woman – The Compact Cabaret in New York, a rather zany American producer first suggested to me that I should do a show on Angela Lansbury because she is British and made her name in the States.
I couldn’t see how I could do Angela justice and kept trying to put this producer off. However, she was insistent for months, saying ‘she could see things in me that would be right for it’.
Honestly, I only started to do some serious research in order to show this woman how mistaken she was, but then I became absolutely intrigued! It was her (Lansbury) struggle against all the odds, against the powers that be in Hollywood and Broadway who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, know how to put her extraordinary talent to good use, that fired me up.
And, when I read about her grandfather George, well that did it. It fitted in so completely into my love of women’s history and desire to share the world’s ‘hers-tories’ through my shows.
In Looking For Lansbury you include songs from Mame, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and Dear World. Are these your favourites and did you consider her singing ‘Goodbye Little Yellow Bird’ from the film of The Picture of Dorian Gray, or ‘Oh You Kid!’ from The Harvey Girls?
Yes, I sing ‘Goodbye Little Yellow Bird’ in Looking For Lansbury and The Harvey Girls is mentioned, but ‘Oh You Kid!’ is not featured, not least because her life and career has been so long, and she has done so much. I could be singing from here into next week and not finish!
I chose songs that would work as narrative in the telling of her story, and to illustrate parts of her personality. I wanted to avoid the approach of ‘She did this show and here is a song from it’, but rather use the songs to push the narrative forward, in the way that modern musical theatre shows do.
Will you still be doing the three separate shows and your other programme on Loving London – The Capital Cabaret in full at any time in the future?
Yes, I am still touring Wartime Women and Looking For Lansbury, both in the UK and abroad. I would also be happy to do Loving London again – I’ve just been too busy with all the others.
I am thinking of performing Looking For Lansbury in London again next year, but the thing I really want to concentrate on is expanding the remit of Wartime Women slightly to include more Suffragette material, and get it ready for 2018. That will be the centenaries of both the end of the First World War and women finally getting the vote – so, I really must do something then. Ideally, I would like it to do a small West End run in a suitable venue.
Are you working on any new themes for compilations and, if so, would they also be about some aspect of women’s lives?
I do have a new compilation forming in my head, and it would be about certain well-known women, but forgive me if I don’t divulge it right now – it’s still settling in my mind.
You have become a part of the revival of cabaret in London and elsewhere, both as a performer and a reviewer. What do you think of venues such as The Pheasantry, Live At Zédel, the St James Theatre, the Leicester Square Theatre and the Jermyn Street Theatre? Do you think they have a long-term future with cabaret?
These venues are very important for the future of cabaret in London, and cabaret is important to them. They are small and intimate, many with bars and tables in them as an integral part of the room. This makes them entirely suitable as settings for cabaret, enabling a direct engagement with the audience, and a personal very special shared experience.
Cabaret is a tricky genre to get right, both artistically and financially, but if the venues are able to work with the artists to get the formula right, there is a magic and excitement that one cannot put a price on.
Once audience members are introduced to cabaret, most fall in love with its informality, physical closeness to the artist, and in some venues, the elegance of it all. I have also noticed how much audience members will interact with each other, even with complete strangers. Sharing a table and a drink together opens up conversations, and with a great night’s entertainment, everyone goes home happy with their heart singing.
Performing outside London and around Britain, do you find that the audiences in the UK are pretty much the same anywhere?
Actually, no. London audiences are able to see so much more, and so tend to have higher expectations. On the other hand, the cabaret audiences in the capital are used to the genre and know to expect a certain amount of direct chat from the artist and welcome the breaking of the ‘fourth wall’.
Small theatres elsewhere are often configured in a more traditional seating arrangement with a proscenium arch stage. This makes the direct engagement rather more surprising, and it may take a little while for the audience to respond.
A traditional theatre can make the cabaret show feel a little more distant for the performer, which at first is unnerving, especially if the lighting is so that you cannot see them. However, I cannot count the number of times when I’ve wondered if I’ve ‘reached’ them, only to find people queuing up outside the dressing room wanting to tell me how much they enjoyed it, and they are dying to tell me their or their mother’s experiences during the Second World War.
You have performed your cabarets in New York and Belgium. Are these audiences any different to those in London and do they get all the typically British references?
New York audiences are loud, boisterous and immediately responsive. I absolutely love them! They get most of the references, especially if I give a bit of explanation, and even if they don’t, they can see the situation I am describing and get fully behind that.
The audiences in Belgium are attentive and utterly delightful. They listen carefully, especially to all the spoken word I perform, as English is not the first language for most of them. They also totally see the circumstances of the characters I am describing, and they know the First World War history really well, enabling a real connection with them.
Whenever I sing ‘Marieke’ there, which has all three languages of English, French and Flemish, I have had people stop me in the street, even the next day if they saw the show, to tell me how moved they were. I sing it in the character of Vera Brittain, one of the most famous nurses of the First World War, who suffered a breakdown after her fiancé, an officer in the army, died of his wounds.
Are you still reviewing other artists’ cabaret shows? If so, you don’t think that it conflicts with your own work at all, as actors don’t always approve of artists joining the other side?
To tell the truth, very few actors have questioned my reviewing them. In fact, only one as far as I am aware, and she is a singer. After all, no one can know or understand the difficulties they are facing and what they are up against better than one of their number!
I genuinely want to see everyone give of their very best, and to celebrate it when they do. And, if I do feel something should be said, I don’t shy away from it, but try my best to say it in a constructive and helpful way, contributing an idea of how an area might be improved, if I think it could help. I have had a lot of feedback from artists thanking me and telling me how useful my comments have been to them.
Having said that, I am now feeling the time for reviewing might be coming to a natural curtailment, as I am now the singing hostess of Fiona-Jane and West End Friends at the Phoenix Artists Club every third Sunday of the month.
In this show, I sing myself and introduce not only performers, but other ‘creatives’ such as musical directors, choreographers, composers and writers, or someone who is able to provide a new and interesting perspective on how shows are put together and how the business works.
Actually, the interviewing skills I have honed as a journalist are coming in rather handy here! Because of the nature of this show, though, I do feel that reviewing artists now would be a conflict of interest, although I am still happy to do preview interviews and help that way with a bit of PR for them.
What’s coming next for Fiona-Jane Weston?
I am planning to continue to write and perform. Much as I enjoy touring, especially internationally, I hope to perform more in London and in the States. I have recently had an invitation to do some shows in Florida, LA and New York. The details need to be talked through, but that is something I would love to do.
As for writing a musical, I have already started on the research for my first full-length libretto. I am currently on the Book Music & Lyrics course, which is held at RADA, and I attend a number of sessions on different aspects of writing musicals where I have been able to talk to terrific writers from both the UK and the USA.
I am both excited and daunted by the prospect. It may be some time before I am ready to unleash the first one on an unsuspecting public.
* Heroines will be performed at The Pheasantry in the King’s Road, Chelsea on 24 October (www.pizzaexpresslive.com)
Readers may also be interested in:
Wartime Women: A Khaki Cabaret – Fiona-Jane Weston – St James Theatre – Review.