Singing nuns, cheery chimney sweepers and a metamorphosing flower-seller, Julie Andrews’ roles are iconic and hold a distinct place in many British childhoods. The profound impact of these films and their clockwork Christmas replays is made clear in Lesley Emery’s one-woman performance of Being Julie Andrews. To snippets of My Favourite Things and other Andrews showtunes, Emery takes us through the ups and downs of a life lived to the sound of a very particular music.
Emery takes us through the ups and downs of a life lived to the sound of very particular music
Like many other members of the audience, I was drawn to the show due to my own love of those technicolour musicals, which is why the initial sombre narration by Emery was unexpected. It was with some relief that Emery broke the fourth wall and started a more conversational account of her life, complete with family snapshots projected behind her and outbursts of song. With a few lines of Maria, we can immediately picture Emery’s youthful exuberance and identify a born performer, who was forced to squash her theatrical impulses into conventionality.
Using props from the three cited musicals, Emery replays key moments in her life whilst maintaining a link back to her role model. For example, Fraulein Maria’s veil becomes a swaddled baby, whilst Mary Poppins’ umbrella transforms into a slow-dancing lover. As we get deeper into the performance, the references back to the titular character become subordinate to the events of Emery’s life. It is with some disorientation that a chirrup of I Have Confidence bursts from the speakers at a heavy point in the story, but although the song selection may at times seem spurious, the emotion of the scenes is undeniable.
When suitably matched, the twinning of Julie Andrews’ roles to Emery’s life works exceptionally well. During its best moments the song fragments heighten not only the scene, but also prompt Pavlovian associations in the audience members and an unconscious mouthing of lyrics. However, in the end, it is Emery who is the main player. This is a story about Emery’s life, even if she tries to convince you that for most of it she was subliminally understudying Andrews. Her open confession about the grit and joy of her years is what really grips and leaves Julie Andrews in the shadows.