Beth Burrows is an accomplished singer who has put together Sirens Of The Silver Screen, a show that examines the careers and songs most associated with Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. The wide and shallow stage of Upstairs at The Gatehouse is sparsely but effectively furnished: a platform for the two excellent musicians who accompany her, Bobby Goulder (keyboard) and Doug Grannell (double bass); a chaise longue for reflective or seductive moments; a wardrobe and screen for costume changes and projection of contemporary footage to cover the time involved in the latter; and a dressing table, for moments of introspection.

Though she wears signature attire for each of the three women this is no straight-forward case of mimicry, except in a few of the most famous songs where it is hard to see how anything else might pass muster. Instead Burrows narrates or illustrates episodes from the lives and careers of each of these sirens, focusing on the ways in which their own personalities to a lesser or greater extent became imprisoned by the personas that were created for them.

The first half is devoted to Garland and Hepburn, and it is the latter with whom Burrows seems the more at home. Garland, the mature singer gets short-changed, with the focus very much on her early success as a child-star. Many of the anecdotes are familiar and the secret of how such a peerless commanding voice survived in such a small and battered body remains unrevealed. Truth to tell Garland is simply too big a figure to share a stage easily with other figures, and the footage of her we saw commanded attention over and above the performance. That said, Burrows delivered a delightful version of ‘The Man That Got Away,’ which really suited the groove of her voice.

The back-story of Audrey Hepburn is less well-known and threw up more surprises: her tough childhood wartime in The Netherlands, the beneficial role of Givenchy throughout her career, her frustrated affair with William Holden, and the way in which she gracefully segued from celebrity through to her inspirational work with UNICEF in a way that puts much of present-day Hollywood to shame.

SirensAll of this was well and economically described, and interspersed with gracefully spun versions of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, ‘’S Wonderful’ and ‘Moon River.’ It was good to be reminded that Hepburn was a perfectly competent singer who did not much need to rely on Marni Nixon.

Really the interval was superfluous except as a comfort and entertainment break for the (sadly) mostly elderly audience. But in any case what came afterwards was a much more integrated and lively sequence devoted to Monroe, avoiding many of the clichés surrounding her career and offering neat transitions to and from the songs which for the first time in the evening made us really feel that at that point words had to give way to music. ‘Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend’ had a real swing and energy behind it; ‘I wanna be loved by you’ had comic brio and genuinely funny audience engagement; and ‘Bye Bye Baby’, real pathos, partly because it was so well juxtaposed within the overall narrative itself.

There were plenty of interesting facts here in a subject that has been combed through many times – for example, did we know that the late and largely unlamented Hugh Heffner had long ago bought the crypt next to Marilyn’s in order to secure his own vicarious immortality? Did we know that Monroe wrote poetry? Just as with the revival of Insignificance currently running at the Arcola, she emerges here as a much more complicated and intriguing figure than usual.

SirensThere are really two respects in which the threads of this show could be drawn more tightly to produce a more detailed tapestry. Firstly, the two truly excellent musicians could be given a bit more to do. Instead of simply using archive footage to cover the time for costume changes the musicians could be let off the leash and offer a mash-up of the many other songs these famous stars are associated with. And secondly, Burrows could offer some more detailed comparisons between them which could bring out more clearly what they shared – some very tough beginnings, a similarly abusive studio system, and very problematic relationships with men, to mention just a few issues.

There are revealing differences too in the ways in which these women sought to establish and preserve their own identities. These divergences are hinted at in some musical reminiscences just at the very end of the show. More of this would be welcome, so that instead of just showcasing and narrating fairly familiar stories, the evening interpreted the figure of the siren. There are some useful lessons available here from the recent one-woman evening devoted to Rita Hayworth – Me, Myself and Rita – also reviewed here.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed this gentle canter through some of the best-loved musical moments of this trio and Burrows’ elegant evocation of the highs and lows of their careers. But she and her creative team could make the show tighter, especially in the first half, and then it would have greater outreach to a younger audience for whom these performers are not automatically a draw.

Sirens Of The Silver Screen
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…