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Coral Browne: This Fucking Lady

If I am being completely honest I can’t say whether it was the star name of Coral Browne or the fact that the play’s title had the word fucking, albeit with three asterisks replacing the u, c and k, in it that piqued my curiosity about Maureen Sherlock’s one woman show Coral Browne: This Fucking Lady at Islington’s The King’s Head Theatre. Discovering that Coral would be played by Prisoner Cell Block H star Amanda Muggleton kind of decided the issue, so tickets were booked for that very afternoon.

I first became aware of the Australian actress at the tender age of 14 when horror movie obsessed little me snuck into our local Odeon to catch Vincent Price’s X-rated Theatre of Blood (1973). In the film Price plays ham actor Edward Lionheart who adapts Shakespeare to execute the critics who savaged his performances. Browne, as critic Chloe Moon, is electrocuted in a hairdressing salon’s dryer, putting a contemporary take on burning Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part One. Of course the real prize Browne got from Theatre of Blood was the Prince of Fear himself, who she married in 1974 and stayed with until her death from breast cancer in 1991.

Of course Browne was much more than a Vincent Price fry up, she was also a respected film and theatre actor, a Catholic by conversion and an astute businesswoman who reputedly left Vincent Price six million dollars in her will. She was also an absolutely shameless exponent of dropping an F bomb into a conversation, despite having her Melbourne accent battered into received pronunciation submission by childhood elocution lessons. Born Coral Brown in 1913 she became an actor by chance when working backstage as a scenery painter and by the time she was 21 had left Australia for the bright lights of the London stage.

Adding an e to her surname for extra sophistication, Browne threw herself into the torrid world of London’s theatrical life and made full use of both her talents and other attributes in that pre #MeToo environment to get exactly what she wanted while also having a bloody good time. Her many lovers included: Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil Beaton and controversially for the 1930s, had the news got out) the black actor Paul Robeson. She also enjoyed a number of dalliances with women. 

During World War Two she made a film with George Formby (Let George Do It 1940) and starred in a touring version of Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner.  When the show ran into difficulties Browne bought the rights with a loan from her dentist, which proved top be a very nice little earner. Post war she continued working on both stage and screen, picking up some pretty solid roles including that of lesbian TV producer Mercy Croft in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968) and an aged Alice Liddell in Dreamchild (1985)

In 1958 as a member of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (later to become the Royal Shakespeare Company) she visited Moscow where she met the spy Guy Burgess, an avid fan of Browne’s former lover Jack Buchanon.  Twenty five years later this meeting was dramatised for the BBC by Alan Bennett as An Englishman Abroad with Browne cast as herself to Alan Bates’s Burgess. Against the odds her performance snatched a BAFTA from under the noses of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, prompting the question amongst the UK TV audience ‘Who the fuck is Coral Browne?’

Which is exactly where Sherlock’s play kicks off. Looking fabulous in a white pant suit and pearls Muggleton as Browne struts from the rear of The King’s Head’s theatre space, through the audience to place the award amongst the minimal props on the tiny stage that is standing in for Browne’s Santa Monica Apartment. Over the next 70 minutes she packs away Browne’s bundles of love letters, playbills and the scrapbooks that act as props for recounting her past life and loves. We are transported to the petit bourgeois Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s, then on to the glamour, bed hopping and bitching of London’s theatrical life before finally finding love and recognition as an older woman.

The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as fully ruptured as Muggleton flirtatiously beckons us into Browne’s world of extraordinary characters and outrageous sexuality, The play is a succession of hilarious anecdotes (the ones about that lesbian sex scene in The Killing of Sister George are particularly funny) and memories, peppered with the odd impression and a an awful lot of swearing, in all it’s a fitting celebration of this larger than life character who so many people know so little about. 

As luck would have it I ran into Maureen Sherlock and Amanda Muggleton in the bar after the performance. The first thing I asked Maureen about was how she became involved in theatre: ’ I started off as an actor (of course, who doesn’t?) in Adelaide South Australia.’ Maureen told me: ‘It’s a small city with a declining number of opportunities for actors so I found myself writing and producing my own material. When I moved to Melbourne I wrote and produced several comedy shows for the Melbourne Comedy Festival, one of which Alzheimer’s the Musical: A night to Remember! won an award and was picked up by the Gilded Balloon for the Edinburgh Fringe. That was a huge success and has been the high point, until now. Bringing Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady! to London has now become the high point in my career!

The next thing I wanted to know was why Maureen chose Coral Brown as the subject of her play? ‘I love reading actor’s biographies, and I kept coming across anecdotes about ’the outrageous Australian actress Coral Browne’ – biographies of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Peter Finch and others all mention her – and I’d never heard of her! So of course I went Googling and discovered what a fascinating  life she led. I also discovered that her memorabilia had been donated to the Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne by Vincent Price and what a treasure trove that turned out to be – letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photos. My biggest problem with so much material was deciding what to leave out!’

‘The play was first performed by another lovely actor Genevieve Mooy and Amanda came along to see it in Melbourne. Amanda encouraged me to contact the King’s Head Theatre in London as she thought it would be a good fit. And I did, they offered us some dates, but Genevieve was unavailable for the time available. So I asked Amanda whether she would be interested – and fortunately she said yes!

So how fabulous was it for Amanda Muggleton to become Coral Browne? ‘I loved it, because she was just such a spontaneous woman and I always loved the way she could say ’fuck’ without offending anyone.’ Amanda replied: ‘She led such an exciting and colourful life what with her collection of famous lovers and dabblings with women. She was so adventurous for her era, so risky, so not the norm. To be given the chance to play such a character was just incredible fun, so different from when I played Maria Callas in Master Class (1998). Callas was so careful, so controlled, whereas Coral was so natural and just didn’t care what she said, she never hid behind her upper class accent.

I seem to be the go to girl for shows about real life charismatic women, Aside from Coral and Maria Callas I was Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop (1998), Bette Davies in Me and Jezebel (2010) which I loved, and  Helena Rubenstein in Lip Service (2017). Playing a person from real life lets you throw yourself into researching the character and Coral kept everything and left so much material behind her ranging from letters that she wrote to her mother to her most intimate love letters.  It’s all there in her archive at the Performing Arts Centre in Melbourne.’

Amanda went on to tell me about the time she actually got to meet the lady herself ‘It was back in 1982 when I was working in Sydney with Gwen Plum in Neil Dunn’s Steaming. Gwen had a place at Whale Beach just outside the city, where we could go and sunbath naked on her balcony since we were all nude in the play. Anyway Gwen phoned me and said ‘Darling you have to come over this weekend I have got Coral and Vincent coming and Coral is just like you’. Of course in hindsight I wish I ‘d got to know her better but back then I only had eyes for Vincent in Gwen’s living room.

I do remember Coral saying when we sat down to eat ‘This is fucking marvelous Gwennie, how did you learn to cook?’ Coral never learnt to cook, she left all that to Vincent who was very good at it. She was beautiful though, but by then she’d had a lot of work done, including a couple of face-lifts. She hardly ate anything at the meal and didn’t touch the wine because she said it had too much sugar in it. She stuck to vodka, which she then drank neat on top of a vodka and lime. With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had got to know her better.’

It must have been interesting getting inside Coral Browne’s head for the performance, what was it like preparing for the London pub theatre debut? ‘We rehearsed the play for ten days in Adelaide before flying to London where we got in a further five days rehearsing in a room above a noisy pub, where the music would go boom boom boom after about 9pm, so it was hard work. When we opened at the Kings Head Theatre we had to share the stage with another production and I had to contend with having all of their gear on the stage during my performance, which must have made it look like a tennis match for the poor audience as I flitted from one side of the narrow strip of stage to the other while Coral boxed up her life. All dressed up and looking fabulous I thought ‘what the fuck am I doing on this crappy old set!’

‘Audiences have loved the play and Amanda’s performance’ Maureen added: ‘And we’ve had mainly excellent reviews, including one from Michael Billington in The Guardian.’

‘Maureen has been fabulous to work with and very responsive to changes and improvisations so I was able to fully interact with the audience.’ Amanda continued ‘In fact the more comfortable I became with the piece the more daring I felt I could be, I even got to kiss a woman in the audience when describing one of Coral’s lesbian encounters in one of the final shows in the run.’

So what happens next with Coral Browne: Some F***ing Lady? Maureen dropped the good news ‘The show looks likely to be picked up by a well known theatrical producer and remounted for touring to larger venues, which is very exciting. It will be interesting for me not to be directing my own work and to see what another director can bring to the play.’

Amanda added ‘The producer came along to the London run and just fell in love with the show. So next year if all goes to plan Coral will be going to the Edinburgh Fringe before coming back here to make a triumphant return to the London stage.’

I for one will certainly be looking forward to welcoming a certain fucking lady back to my home town. Thank you so much Maureen and Amanda and good luck with the show.

About Simon Ball

Simon is a child of the 1960s, his marmie liked Affred Hitchcock and he grew up on a diet of classic Dr Who, Hammer Horror, Heavy Metal, Goth and Spaghetti Westerns. He cut his journalistic teeth in 1976 interviewing the bass player from an unknown band called Motorhead, now what was his name? Since then he wasted several years in corporate PR, edited heritage products and got an MA in the History of Science before he fell off the truck and returned to the world he loves best. Simon is Editor in Chief of the Horror Hothouse website and a regular contributor to the Spooky Isles.

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