REVIEW: Secrets of the actress who inspired My Fair Lady

Penelope Keith (Mrs Patrick Campbell) in Chichester Festival Theatre's Mrs Pat. Photo Catherine Ashmore SUS-151024-094928001
Penelope Keith (Mrs Patrick Campbell) in Chichester Festival Theatre's Mrs Pat. Photo Catherine Ashmore SUS-151024-094928001

‘Mrs Pat’ by Anton Burge at Chichester Festival Minerva Theatre

‘It is the fate of Tour de Forces to be forced to tour,’ bemoans Mrs Patrick Campbell as she waits at Toulouse Station in the winter of 1940 for a train to take her to Pau.

Even at the age of 75 this impoverished English stage actress had to drag herself from one small town to another giving talks and reprising roles in an effort to put food on the plate.

As war closed in around her and her only companion was her Pekingese Moonbeam, her travel arrangements were increasingly limited.

But the journey was nearly at an end.

Pau was to prove her final resting place and Burge’s play uses the long wait at the final station hop as an opportunity for the actress to review her bitter-sweet life and career.

Penelope Keith is a favourite of the Chichester audience and she does not disappoint in this monumental one-woman performance.

Opening with the assured middle class confidence of Margo Leadbetter - the role that swept her to fame in the 1970s’ The Good Life - she quickly demonstrates that Mrs Pat was more than a classic accent and an acerbic wit.

Mrs Pat - friend of George Bernard Shaw whose letters she longed to publish to relieve her of penury - had already reserved herself a place in theatrical history for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in the original 1914 production of Pygmalion.

Shaw had expressly written the part for her despite her advancing age.

It was, of course, a play that was to become a global triumph as My Fair Lady in a later musical adaptation.

But despite some notable triumphs, Mrs Pat was always destined to be a footnote rather than a chapter in the archive of the stage.

The personal tragedies and lost opportunities which underpinned the confident exterior are gently revealed by Miss Keith’s forensically accomplished portrayal.

She captures that sense of repressed English despair hidden behind a rapier humour with a dignity that shows why Miss Keith is the national treasure that Mrs Pat could only ever aspire to be.

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