One of Britain’s Finest – Overtures looks back at Valmouth

Valmouth is a show that few have had the opportunity to see.  It was not a great hit when first seen in 1958 and its only major revival was presented out-of-town.  Yet, for many it is considered one of the best British musicals ever written and one awaiting to be fully discovered. 

Valmouth opened at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, West London and the programme includes a note written by Sandy Wilson which gives some incite to the production:

‘The idea of making Ronald Firbank’s Valmouth into a musical came to me when I first read it – ten years ago; but I did not pursue it until I met Bertice Reading who, it suddenly struck me, was the leading character, Mrs Vajnavalkya, to the life, just as Firbank had described her. The task of adaption seemed formidable to begin with but I found that the novel soon resolved itself into dramatic structures – except for the ending: it has none, it simply fades away.  But by a stroke of good fortune, this difficulty was also overcome.  Thanks to the executors of the Firbank estate, I was allowed access to all of Mr Firbank’s note books in one of which I found he had outlined two possible endings to the novel.  The first that the inhabitants of Valmouth were all stricken with yellow fever, seemed, while very typical, hardly suitable for a musical.  The second is the one I have used.’

Valmouth was indeed specifically written with Bertice Reading in mind.  She had appeared in Jazz Train in London and also in Requiem for a Nun, a play in which she would later win a Tony nomination on Broadway.  What Wilson does not mention is that the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, where Requiem for a Nun had played, wanted to feature her again and suggested to Sandy Wilson that he write a piece for her.  As we heard Wilson knew the show he wanted to write, one based on Valmouth, the somewhat bizarre novel by Ronald Firbank.  Firbank had created an English spa in the imaginary town of Valmouth.  The spa is blessed with waters that keep its visitors young and active, in more than one way.  The visitors are centenarians who react not just to the waters but to the massage given by the mysterious immigrant from the Caribbean, the famed Mrs Vajnavalkya, the role Wilson had envisaged for Miss Reading.

Once written Wilson presented it to the English Stage Company and they rejected it, surprisingly for that out-looking company, because of subjects it dared to mention.  Wilson refused to make changes and offered it to the young and successful producer Michael Codron who booked the Lyric, Hammersmith.  It was the third Sandy Wilson show to be seen in London.  The first, of course, had been The Boy Friend followed by The Buccaneer.  The Boy Friend was still running when Valmouth appeared – they could not be more different – one so innocent and the other so open.

Valmouth is far from a conventional musical.  There is no simple love story and the plot line has more lust than love and it dares to comment on religion before returning to sex.  There is even a hint of homosexuality.  And this was in 1958 ten years before theatre censorship ended.

Valmouth’s director was Vida Hope who had directed The Boy Friend.  The sets and costumes were by Tony Walton, designing his first London show – he would go on to marry Broadway’s Polly, Julie Andrews.  The show was cast with a number of respected older actresses including Doris Hare.  Somewhat surprisingly the sex-mad centenarian Lady Parvula was given to a young Fenella Fielding.

Valmouth opened at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 2 October 1958 after a try-out at the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool.  It played there for 82 performances and it was not until the end of that run that an offer for a West End transfer was received.  By that time Bertice Reading had accepted a contract to take Requiem for a Nun to Broadway. 

Miss Redding’s part in Valmouth was taken by Cleo Laine.  It re-opened at the Saville Theatre on 27 January 1959 and played for only 102 performances, the lack of Miss Reading took its toll.  The show was recorded during the run, but Cleo Laine’s husband, Johnny Dankworth insisted that her songs were re-orchestrated.  However, Miss Reading did record ‘Big best shoes’ which was issued on a 45.

The following year Valmouth had an Off-Broadway showing at the York Playhouse where it opened on 6 October with Bertice Reading recreating her role. Playing Niri-Esther was Gail Jones, the daughter of Lena Horne.  It only managed a two week run.  There have been no more American productions.

A major revival was mounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1982 with Bertice Reading, Fenella Fielding and Marcia Ashton returning to their original roles.  Unfortunately, there was no London transfer but there was a full recording using the correct orchestrations issued on LP and later CD.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures archive