Pat Kirkwood was one of the most successful musical stars of her generation – albeit before my time – and her fascinating story has been brought to life in a touching one-woman show by writer and performer Jessica Walker, directed by Lee Blakely. In a touring co-production from Opera North and the Royal Exchange Theatre, accessible to a younger audience who may know little about Kirkwood as well as to those who do, Walker’s Pat Kirkwood Is Angry is a reimagination of the life and songs of a largely forgotten star performer. Taking to the stage with her musical director and accompanist James Holmes, who is a kind of muse to her Kirkwood throughout, Walker takes the audience on a chronological journey through Kirkwood’s life and career, using the minimum of props and a stand at the side of the piano displaying the relevant year or decade.

Pat Kirkwood Is Angry is a fascinating show for many reasons. It’s a very simple format, though one that I haven’t seen used before, with singer and actress Walker playing Kirkwood, revealing episodes from the star’s life in between singing songs from particular periods of her life and career, and songs that fit the context of those episodes, including ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. It’s a particularly rich life to examine too – Kirkwood became Britain’s first wartime star at the age of 18 – there’s a hilarious blackout scene early on in the piece – and was the highest paid entertainer in Britain during the 1940s. But as she appeared to be at the peak of her success, a 7 picture contract with MGM was cancelled after her debut film flopped, and she had a nervous breakdown. Walker faces both the triumphs and the tragedies head on, giving a real sense of the indomitable spirit of a performer who never gave up, despite what life through at her.

Kirkwood’s relationship with her family and her romantic liaisons were the source of much heartbreak in her life. Four times married, Kirkwood was plagued by men who were either unfaithful or unscrupulous, with the exception of her second husband and true love Sparky, who collapsed and died in front of his devastated wife. Walker’s show doesn’t shy away from the scandal which engulfed Kirkwood for the rest of her life, the rumour that she had a romantic liaison with Prince Philip in 1948 when the then Princess Elizabeth was pregnant with Charles. Walker leaves the audience to decide the truth for themselves, but Kirkwood herself had fought almost until the end to clear her name, and she was never rewarded with the royal honour that her contemporaries enjoyed. Yes, Pat Kirkwood IS indeed angry at times here.   

Walker’s portrayal of Kirkwood is humorous and anecdotal – Kirkwood emerges as a vulnerable, occasionally outspoken but witty and likeable character, with Walker skilfully avoiding sentimentality in either writing or acting the piece. Kirkwood’s last years, as she appears in a Cole Porter review at Chichester (appropriate as Porter had previously told her ‘any song of mine, any time’), before descending into the cloud of dementia that had engulfed her mother before her, are particularly moving. Walker maintains the careful balance between humour and pathos that characterises her portrayal of Kirkwood until the end, leaving one eager to find out more about this musical theatre star of yesteryear.