Fifty years ago Joyce Grenfell opened one of her one-women shows on 23 March at the Queen’s Theatre for a limited four week run.
Born in 1910 she was a lady with a pedigree and not one who we would expect to become a performer. Her mother was an American socialite whose sister was Nancy Astor. She had married an Englishman and Joyce was born in London.
Her career had started as a journalist and radio critic for the Observer. She married Reginald Grenfell in 1929 and their marriage lasted until her death in 1979. Joyce’s second cousin was the American actress Ruth Draper who was world famous for her monologues – so no wonder that Joyce developed her own.
As the story goes, Joyce had attended a Woman’s Institute meeting where the lecturer had spoken on useful and acceptable gifts. At a dinner party with friends she impersonated the lady. A few weeks later she was at a larger party and was asked to perform again. She did, and one of the fellow guests happened to be Herbert Farjeon.
Farjeon had just had great success with a revue called Nine Sharp which had performed at the Little Theatre starring Hermione Baddeley, Cyril Ritchard, and Charlotte Leigh. These great revue artists were to stay on for The Little Revue in 1939 and Farjeon asked for the monologue for it Charlotte Leigh to perform. When written down and again performed, this time for just Farjeon and Leigh, it was suggested that she should perform it herself. The reason was simple, for as amusing as the piece was, it became all the funnier because of the imitation of the voice which was described by Joyce Grenfell as ‘an unlocalised accent of great daintiness’ spoken carefully with ‘every consonant sharply finished and smartly delivered with all her vowels aslant’. She wrote another piece called ‘Mothers’, a three section monologue describing three different kinds of mothers including an American listening to her small daughter reciting Shelley’s ‘Ode to a skylark’. That with ‘Useful and Acceptable Gifts’ brought Joyce Grenfell instant fame and it was the start of a theatrical career which brought her stardom and adoration from her admirers.
Joyce worked hard during the war entertaining the troops travelling with her pianist all over Europe and afar. After the war she starred in other revues and then went on to perform one woman shows both here and in the States.
Because of her many film roles, often built around her characters, she is still fondly remembered. She recorded much of her material, most of which she wrote herself, and these are still readily available. Maureen Lipman had great success playing Joyce in Re-Joyce.
The Overtures archive contains the original 78 recordings and programmes from both here and the States.