Opera North Blog

Pat Kirkwood is Angry: Jessica Walker discusses the inspiration for her new show

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Pat Kirkwood is Angry is the name of your show. Who was Pat Kirkwood, why is she angry and what’s the show about?

Pat Kirkwood was named Britain’s first wartime star in 1939 when she was 18. She was a singer and an actress, primarily in variety, revue and pantomime. Noel Coward wrote a show specifically for her, and she was the first woman to have her own TV series on the BBC.

She was the highest paid entertainer in Britain in the 40s, but in 1948 she had an encounter with the Duke of Edinburgh, and suffered from rumours throughout her career that she may have had an affair with him. She’s angry in my show, because having died in 2007 without having cleared up what really happened, she wants to have the opportunity to talk about her life, her career, her fame and the loss of her fame, and to get her side of the story across.

The research has been far-ranging, from archival research at the British Theatre Museum and the British Library, watching all the footage of Pat Kirkwood available, and interviewing people who knew her. I do all that, then I let it settle, and then I literally sit down and see what comes out. And when I write, I’m not thinking about the fact that I’m the performer, so when I come to learn it, it’s just as difficult as if someone else had written it and given it to me. I edit as I go, because what you write on the page often doesn’t sound right when you speak it.

You’re collaborating again with James Holmes, previously Head of Music at Opera North. How have you worked together on the music for this show?

James and I listened to all the recordings of Pat Kirkwood and watched all of the footage together, so some of the songs are my choices and some of them are his. He will arrange them to suit my voice. The songs illustrate stories from her life. They’re all songs that were important in her career in some way, but they’re all used as emotional exposition of episodes in her life – almost like recitative and aria. In my last show, The Girl I Left Behind Me, the songs were the focus, and the stories fitted around the songs. In Pat Kirkwood is Angry, the stories, the life, the person form the focus and the songs come out of that.

It certainly sounds like there was more to her than rumours?

What’s interesting is that everyone knows who Dame Vera Lynn is. Pat Kirkwood died in 2007 and nobody knew who she was anymore, and yet they were equally famous in their own time. The show is also a study of the ephemeral nature of fame; someone who was so well known has been completely forgotten about, and is now only remembered for an alleged affair that never happened.

Pat Kirkwood is Angry is devised and performed by Jessica Walker, with musical director and pianist James Holmes and director Lee Blakeley. Performances are in the Studio at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from Wednesday 3 – Saturday 6 October, and at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on Wednesday 10 October. 

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