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Mill at Sonning - Over My Shoulder

8th April to 10th May 2003.

This is from The Times.

Because Jessie Matthews never starred in a great Hollywood musical she is now a name and not a presence. Her Gaumont British films of the 1930s are seldom shown, and you must scour the internet to trace The Good Companions, Evergreen and It’s Love Again. Yet Evergreen, a stage show before it became a movie, gave her the hit song used as the title of this genial tribute show, as well as the wistful Dancing on the Ceiling. She was also the first to sing Coward’s A Room with a View and Porter’s Let’s Do It. A pretty good achievement for a Soho fruit-seller’s daughter to look back on.

It is the very nature of tributes to look back, and author Richard Stirling follows another hallowed precedent by finding a moment near the end of his star’s life that will spur her to reflect upon songs and dances past. This moment is her visit to the Palace to receive her OBE insignia — Old But Energetic, as she puts it while admiring the view. A room with a view, of course. After two decades of obscurity she had returned to national fame playing the title role on radio in Mrs Dale’s Diary, which may be a weird climax to a musical career but many a star has faded and fared worse.

The matronly Jessie is played by The Boy Friend’s original girl friend of 50 years ago, Anne Rogers. Her singing voice is deeper now and fuller than when a room with a view was Sandy Wilson’s room in Bloomsbury, but the present role gives her the chance to be impish, a touch world-weary and several touches common when recalling her roots among the fruits. So a big welcome back, Miss Rogers.

And a big welcome to Helen Baker, giving a spellbinding performance as the kittenish, mischievous Young Jessie, lithe, nimble, beautiful. Her dancing feet turn to tap as the natural expression of joy, and at one point fit a delightful triplet of steps to go with the word buttercups in a song to springtime.

Jessie converted her street vowels into one of the purest crystalline voices ever recorded — absurdly so, some thought — and Baker recreates her exotic refinement and makes it truly enchanting.

Stirling fits many of the songs to the particular joys and crises of a stormy life, these different moods expressively choreographed by Stewart Nicholls. Five men in evening dress, hair laid flat by brilliantine, make courteously parodic appearances as Coward, Crosby and other significant partners. All this and heavenly period costumes by Ilona Karas Prokopcova. A delight.