I was fizzing with anticipation on the way to see Kathleen Turner perform her one-woman show, ‘Finding My Voice’, today. This, after all, is the woman who has starred in some of my favourite films: ‘Romancing the Stone’, ‘Body Heat’, ‘War of the Roses’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, to name but a few. The woman whose chemistry with Michael Douglas lit up the silver screen. And the woman who every woman of my generation secretly (or not so secretly) wanted to be.
First things first, though. Has the St James Theatre changed much since being bought by Andrew Lloyd Webber and renamed (somewhat bafflingly) The Other Palace? The answer is no, at least superficially. More seating has been added to the ground floor lobby, presumably in an attempt to entice greater numbers of customers to the bar, but otherwise it retains its warm, welcoming feel.
Neither has the auditorium itself changed – it’s still cosy & intimate, every seat affording a good view of the stage. Further reasons why, together with the Park Theatre, this remains my favourite venue in London.
Fitting, then, that I should get to see one of my favourite actresses appear here. Indeed, there was a collective intake when Kathleen did, finally, appear – she remains as tall and striking as ever, with a very real stage presence. Not that we should be surprised by that; theatre, as she would later explain, remains her first love.
This would prove to be a highly entertaining couple of hours, with Kathleen laying her heart bare about her career, her ongoing ill health and her despair at the state of American politics. In between anecdotes, she would sing musical standards which are particular favourites of hers, such as ‘Let’s Fall in Love’ and ‘Pick Yourself Up’.
From where, though, did the idea for a one-woman show stem? “I’ve never seen myself as a singer”, Kathleen began, ”but Molly Smith changed all that”. Turns out that it was the doyenne of American theatre who persuaded Kathleen to star in ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ in Washington DC: a play with songs, something the most confident of actors would be nervous about taking on. Hesitantly, Kathleen agreed – and this “thrilling” production remains one of the jobs of which she is most proud.
‘Mother Courage’ was also the catalyst for ‘Finding My Voice’. After returning to New York, Kathleen continued to work with musicians Andy Gale and Mark Janas – and the idea for a cabaret was born.
It’s a natural fit. Kathleen is an innate storyteller and understands how to connect with an audience; I could have listened to her all day long. She’s had such an interesting life, beginning with a peripatetic childhood which saw her family, with its diplomat father, live in countries including Canada, Venezuela and Cuba. Tragically, Kathleen’s father died suddenly when she was just 18 and she moved, with her mother and siblings, to Missouri (“What a culture shock”) where her mother’s family were based.
Stunned at this sudden change in circumstances and lifestyle, it was theatre, Kathleen informed us, that got her through this period of her life – and theatre to which she regularly returns. And the stage loves her, as anyone lucky enough to see her in the West End production of ‘The Graduate’ will testify.
It’s fair to say that the screen loves her just as much, though – and there were some laugh-out-loud moments as Kathleen regaled us with tales of working with directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and John Huston, being asked to play the father of Chandler Bing in ‘Friends’ (“I thought: A woman playing a man playing a woman? I’ve never done that before. Why not!”) and battling with pigeons and unhelpful council officers whilst filming in South Kensington.
Funny, yes, but there were some reflective moments, too, when Kathleen talked, with searing honesty, about her unwinnable battle with rheumatoid arthritis, which at its worst left her self-medicating with alcohol, unable to walk and preparing for life in a wheelchair.
All of this was told to us without an ounce of self-pity; indeed, Kathleen was far more keen to talk about the work she does with ‘Planned Parenthood’ and New York’s ‘City-meals on Wheels’: causes dear to her heart. A life-long Democrat, she takes a keen interest in politics; I’ll leave you to guess at her views on Trump.
What an enjoyable experience this was. It wasn’t perfect: Kathleen is an excellent storyteller, but less of a natural singer and I would have preferred more chat and fewer songs. However, as an ‘up close & personal’ encounter with one of the best stage and screen actresses of recent memory, it offered both heart and hope – a winning combination.