The last time I saw Patricia Routledge was almost twenty years ago in the Emlyn Williams play The Corn Is Green. Routledge was possibly at the height of her popular fame at that time, appearing as Hyancinth Bouquet in the hit BBC comedy Keeping Up Appearances, and gave a formidable performance in the lead role. Our paths crossed again last weekend when she appeared at the Charing Cross Theatre (a little gem of a theatre right under Charing Cross Station, where you can hear the occasional passing of trains overhead) where she presented an evening entitled Facing the Music. In conversation with arts critic, broadcaster and musicologist Edward Seckerson, whose Radio 3 programme Stage and Screen was a must-listen-to masterclass in all aspects of musical theatre and is much missed, Routledge proved that she still has great diction and poise.

Best known for her non-musical roles – although perhaps best remembered in musical theatre circles for her appearance as Nettie Fowler in the acclaimed National Theatre production of CarouselFacing the Music reveals that she appeared in many other musicals and has had an interesting musical life. Seckerson has collated his discovery of the many lesser known shows that Routledge appeared in into this show, playing recorded extracts of her singing from those shows in between conversation. Seated in two unfussy armchairs separated by a table containing a colourful bouquet (a slight nod to her TV success maybe), Seckerson’s questioning of Routledge is unintrusive, sincere and revealing. It turns out that Routledge has met and worked with some our greatest musical theatre writers. Richard Rodgers, no less, attended a Saturday matinee of one of her shows and sent her a note asking her to meet him as he wanted to write a show for her talents. On his own after Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers never found her the right vehicle to inspire him, and one can only imagine what might have been. Leonard Bernstein demanded she fly to Edinburgh to audition for 1600 Pensylvania Avenue, a show he wrote with Alan Lerner which turned out to be a flop. When she agreed to meet him in London – amidst much hand kissing! – in order to maintain her commitment to a play at Chichester, he sent her two songs to prepare – one was so difficult that she left it at home! And Noel Coward stopped the opening night of Cowardly Custard which Routledge starred in at the Mermaid, for five minutes, when he entered the auditorium.

Having enjoyed a musical family background, singing in many get-togethers and in the school choir, Routledge trained at the Bristol Old Vic, starting her professional musical life in a little known musical by Bristol alumni, Julian Slade. Her lengthy musical journey has seen her hit the heights of a winning a Tony award for Jule Styne’s Darling of the Day and an Olivier Award for Bernstein’s Candide as the Old Lady with one buttock (“I didn’t have surgery for that role!” she quips). However, what set Routledge’s evening apart was her obvious positive mental attitude towards her work, along with her attitude towards her profession as work, rather than the usual emphasis on glitz and glamour. Indeed, she is almost teary eyed at the memory of the kindness of a leading man who hands her a glass of champagne as she is about to enter for her leading lady bow at a Broadway opening night. Routledge bemoans the current trend amongst certain musical theatre performers not to commit to 8 shows a week – such a demand would never have been dreamt of in her day – and quotes an all-too-familiar story about how it was hard to book tickets for a certain musical to see both leads in the show over a two-week period immediately prior to the show’s recast. Likewise, when Seckerson asks how you can remain positive when you’re in a musical that’s in trouble, Routledge maintains that you have to always remain positive for the show to succeed, however hard that is on occasions.

The musical extracts that Seckerson uses to intersperse their conversation reveal Routledge in fine voice and clear tone. Incredibly, certainly by modern standards, all shows were recorded as a matter of course in Routledge’s day and the recordings are now valuable historical documents of that musical period. The last musical extract is of Routledge singing Climb Every Mountain – another Rodgers song – recorded for the Music For Pleasure label for the pricely sum of £20 for an afternoon’s work and no royalties. One somehow feels that Routledge should have received much more acclaim for her musical theatre work – she would have been a great Sondheim interpretor in all probability – although the lady herself modestly brushes over some successes. What is endearing about Routledge is that she came in, told her story without affectation, sincerely and with good humour, and then left, without the merest whiff of any of the divaesque antics of a theatre luvvie. That’s what you call a true star.