Pat Kirkwood spent her life missing the proverbial boat. Her parents were disappointed that she was born a girl and more or less shoved her aside when a beloved boy arrived. Her mother, when Pat asked if she was pretty, told her she was “irredeemably plain”. When she began to sing, however, her mother was on her like white on rice.
Billed as a singing schoolgirl, Kirkwood was soon treading the boards in music halls all over the country. She was a teenager when the WWII started and sang in London’s West End during the blackout, and she recalls being the only one left in the theatre more than once as the audience ran for safety.
“Any song. Any time.” Was what Cole Porter promised her after she appeared in the musical Let’s Face It and sang It Was Just One of Those Things. Hollywood called her to be in a film, No Leave no Love with Van Johnson (who was having an affair with his co-star Keenan Wynn). Johnson told her the move was going to “be a stinker” so they should just have some fun. The studio told her she was too fat and put her on a regimen of diet pills that backfired. She had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a Sanitarium.
It was on her return to London and appearance in another revue that brought her the biggest whammy of her life. Prince Philip, then married to the 8 month pregnant Princess Elizabeth, paid her a visit in the company of her current beau. Both were pleasantly smashed. She was invited to dine, which she did. After dinner they retired to a night club where she and the Prince danced cheek-to-cheek. The evening ended in the morning with scrambled eggs and toast.
The media went bananas as did the Royal Family. It became “the prince and the showgirl” forever after. Kirkwood denied anything improper. More than that she insisted “Showgirl implies someone from the chorus. I was NEVER in the chorus.” The Royal Family stayed mum, although the Prince did write to say he was sorry for the inconvenience. The scandal dogged Kirkwood for the rest of her life and prevented her from becoming a Dame as so many of her contemporaries did.
Four husbands later she was treated to an episode of This is Your Life that was positively ghastly. Everyone was either old or not a friend. She died in a nursing home in 2007.
All this is told by the very talented Jessica Walker who, for some reason, chose to tell this tale as Kirkwood herself. For the life of me I don’t know why. Walker has a stunning voice that she knows exactly how to use. But locking herself into a character as filled with as much regret as Kirkwood is not a good fit. I got the feeling that Walker, if given a nanno-second would flow easily into ad libs and patter because she is so personable and makes it a point, unlike so many solo performers of actually looking AT the audience members. Walker is all about connecting. Kirkwood? Not so much.
Accompanied by the seriously talented Joseph Atkins who makes his upright sound like a baby grand, Walker delivers the goods musically speaking. My Kind of Man by Noël coward was a complete surprise to me and not an easy tune to deliver. Walker aces it. Guess Who I Saw Today by Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd– a song that is over performed and often bludgeoned – is delivered with such simplicity that your heart cracks into a bazillion little pieces on the spot. And her Begin The Beguine is steeped in pathos so deep you can feel it all the way down to your toes. Walker weaves serious magic when she sings.
I only wish she had given herself that much freedom with her text and told Kirkwood’s story as herself. Tales told by a ghost are touchy matters, and in this case the vibrant living Jessie Walker might have told the tale a whole lot better.
Pat Kirkwood Is Angry – Written and performed by Jessica Walker; directed by Lee Blakeley
Musical direction and piano accompaniment by Joseph Atkins; musical arrangements by James Holmes; lighting by D. M. Wood; stage manager, James Steele. A Jess Walker Music Theater production, in association with the Royal Exchange Theater, Manchester, England, presented by 59E59 Theaters as part of Brits Off Broadway; Elysabeth Kleinhans, artistic director; Brian Beirne, managing director; Peter Tear, executive producer. At the 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan, 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Through June 29. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.