It’s the 1984 BAFTAs, and nominees for best television actress include English stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. The announced winner (for An Englishman Abroad) was unknown to many – Australia’s Coral Browne (1913–1991). Anticipating the audience’s surprise, Browne asks “Who’s that?”, quickly answering emphatically: “It’s This F**king Lady!”
The guttural exclamation – as Amanda Muggleton (Hollyoaks, Prisoner Cell Block H) would quickly tell us in this one-woman show – was only in Browne’s head. She showed discretion, this time, in not cursing how neglected she’d been in recent years. Browne found her lapse into obscurity galling given her storied career and achievements.
Now in her later years, we’ve surprised Browne by waiting in her basement. She’s about to pick over memorabilia to send back to Melbourne for her newly established archive. Of course, each card and award holds a recollection.
Whilst this trope-y, phoney setup could lead to quite a silly outing, in the hands of director Nadia Tass, the show effectively balances serious matters like Browne’s struggles against classism and conservatism, with a gleeful celebration of her life. Maureen Sherlock’s script gives Browne numerous tart lines amidst the reflections, and Muggleton often extracted loud audience laughter from these.
From her childhood, West-Footscray-born Coral Brown, was pushed by her “snob” mother to stand out, perfect her elocution, and slim down to match her drama competition rivals. Brown managed most of this, and by the age of 21 had an imposing list of leading-lady credits around Australia. The only way to grow was to show 1930s England her talents.
Of course, plenty of actresses thought the same, and most were more posh and better connected. Muggleton’s performance showed us Brown’s secret weapons: fearlessness, bawdiness, and a gift for self-promotion that would take her from wartime West End comedies, to leading roles in Shakespeare and motion pictures.
Perhaps Muggleton, originally from London’s East End, has a particular insight into the challenges of succeeding when you don’t talk the “right” way for certain roles. Brown had the courage to play “harlots”, “prostitutes”, “scarlet ladies”, and so on, that would build her exposure, leading on to bigger things. Her confidence also made her attractive to a range of high-profile entertainers, including Paul Robeson and Vincent Price.
As is appropriate for a comedy, Tass’s direction ensures that we glide lightly across our heroine’s regrets. We find plenty of amusing stories amongst a life punctuated by celebrity run-ins and misadventures. And yes, we do get the story of when Ms Brown became Ms Browne.
Whilst Muggleton paid tribute to matters including Browne’s heartaches, she lovingly embraced the effervescent mischief of one of our underappreciated exports. The production is well assembled, and even the odd missed lighting cue let Muggleton improvise some fun.
Projected photos usefully showed the industrial nature of Brown’s childhood suburb, or glamourous moments from Browne’s stage and screen appearances, helping us realise just what kind of star was This F**king Lady.
A few years later, I still tell people about Muggleton’s turn as Maria Calas in Masterclass. Her time in the London production of This F**king Lady received critical acclaim. This Australian premiere season provides a rare opportunity to witness such a talent at work.
It’s also a good excuse to check out the freshly revamped Brunswick Ballroom (formerly the Spotted Mallard) for about an hour of saucy entertainment. Before show’s end, I felt proud of the achievements of WeFo girl Coral Brown, and of Muggleton’s interpretation of her unconventional life.
Coral Browne – This F**king Lady
Brunswick Ballroom, 314 – 316 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Performance: Thursday 8 April 2021 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 18 April 2021
Information and Bookings: www.brunswickballroom.com.au
Image: Amanda Muggleton as Coral Browne – photo by David Parker
Review: Jason Whyte