Amassing a list of lovers almost as long as her list of stage and screen credits, formidable Australian actress Coral Browne left West Footscray to take on the world. Her terrifically titillating tales are told in a revival of Maureen Sherlock’s 2018 play Coral Browne: This F**king Lady, presented at Brunswick Ballroom as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
First a word about Melbourne’s fabulous new venue, the splendidly repurposed Brunswick Ballroom. Surrounded by abundant cafes and public transport, Brunswick Ballroom is a highly atmospheric mix of old-world character and modern hospitality. Cabaret-style seating places patrons in easy view of the stage and easy reach of the well-stocked, and generously long, bar. Brunswick Ballroom is sure to see many a memorable evening as it hosts a variety of performance styles over the coming years.
Alternately ribald and regal, Coral Browne tells her life story to a captive audience who marvel at the sheer scope of her career and love life. Sherlock has corralled the litany of events into a briskly told, freely flowing memory play, beginning the night Browne beats Judi Dench and Maggie Smith to win a 1984 Best Actress BAFTA Award for her role in the television film of Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad.
Many of the incidents and interactions could actually have stood up to more attention; the script, at times, leaving the audience wanting more. In this modern era of HBO-style freedom of language in entertainment, Browne’s propensity for colourful language does not really have the shock value that it may have once had, undermining the impact of that particular aspect of Sherlock’s script.
Amanda Muggleton is ideal casting as Browne, bringing the brazen actress roaring back to life with buoyancy and warmth. Muggleton’s work here brings to mind one of her greatest stage roles, elevating the impact of anecdotes by effortlessly putting on the voices and personas of other characters as she did in Shirley Valentine.
Director Nadia Tass keeps proceedings brisk, enhancing the storytelling with images of Browne displayed on a large overhead screen. The conceit of the play sees Browne pack items of memorabilia to send to an arts museum in, quelle horreur, Melbourne. These projections and props add visual interest to an already fascinating story.
Browne’s stage career reads like a definitive drama bookshelf, from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Wilde and Orton. With a film career spanning more than five decades, key roles include Vera Charles in Auntie Mameand Mrs Croft in The Killing of Sister George. Filming of the infamous lesbian love scene in The Killing of Sister George makes for one of the funniest sequences in the play.
Living at a heady time of sexual fluidity, Browne’s lovers included Maurice Chevalier, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Cecil Beaton. Initially struggling to enjoy the same early success she had enjoyed at J. C. Williamson’s in Australia, she went on to thrive on London’s West End, enjoying the glamorous London lifestyle from the 1930s to 1970s. Browne’s third marriage was to horror movie star Vincent Price, living her final years in Los Angeles.
In Muggleton’s capable hands, Coral Browne: This F**king Lady easily holds attention for its running time of 65 minutes.
Audience members of a certain age with an appetite for nostalgia will find much to enjoy in Coral Browne: This F**king Lady.
Coral Browne: This F**king Lady plays at Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne until 18 April 2021. For tickets, click here.
Photos: David Parker