Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview Theatre Interview

Tim Heath and David Donegan: Kathy Kirby – Icon

By | Published on Thursday 22 October 2015

I am not sure that everyone who reads this will remember Kathy Kirby, but back in the sixties, she was a renowned singing star. Learning about this biographical musical kindled some misty memories for me (only vague because her fame had waned by the time I was born) and I immediately went looking for more information on her.


It’s a relatively short play, and has been teamed with a second piece, ‘I Play For Me’, also about a musician. To find out more, I put some questions to director Tim Heath and producer David Donegan.

CM: Kathy Kirby was an icon for some, but for those who are unaware of her, can you tell us who she was?
TH&DD: She was a superb singer with great technique who more or less ran away from home at the age of 16 and fell in love with the great band leader Bert Ambrose. He became her mentor, lover and manager and moulded her into the highest paid British female singer of the 1960s, an English Marilyn Monroe, recording a number of hits and representing Great Britain at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. She died in poverty in 2011.

CM: The play is biographical, obviously, but what is the focus of the play? Does it tell her whole story or re-create a particular phase of her life?
TH&DD: It tells most of her life story, but focuses on how she coped with life and fading stardom after Ambrose’s death in 1971.

CM: It sounds as though the conclusion of her life was quite sad. Is that something that the show dwells on? Is it in any sense a cautionary tale?
TH&DD: It is not a cautionary tale, nor was she sad at the end of her life. The show is the story of someone cut off from reality by wealth and stardom finding a new inner peace, contentment in poverty and obscurity and realising that, in the words of the song, ‘Love is the answer’.

CM: What attracted you to the piece? What made you want to direct it? Where did the idea for the show come from?
TH: The theme of rebirth and the attainment of self-knowledge attracted me as a theme; the power of her rendition of the songs she sang excited me, as did the challenge of telling a story through those songs.
DD: The idea of a play with music about Kathy Kirby came to me when I read her obituary in 2011. I remembered her as a wonderfully glamorous star of the sixties who then disappeared from public view.

CM: Naturally it’s a musical – but is all the music based on the songs she used to sing, or does it go further than that…?
TH&DD: The songs are all ones she used to sing, with a wide range of styles. The first play of our double-bill, however, has a newly composed song supposedly written by the lead character, a fictional rock star. This new song is in the style of Bob Dylan meets Simon and Garfunkel.

CM: Tell us about the other piece in the double bill, ‘I Play For Me’. Why are the two things being staged together?
DD: Tom O’Brien wrote the one original act play about Kathy Kirby which was very well received at a ‘try out’ of 5 performances in 2012. It was beautifully constructed, and captured the essence of Kathy Kirby’s talent and character.

Tim Heath and I considered several options, such as extending Tom’s play to two acts, or mounting a double bill. We spent several months researching existing plays set in the 1960s. We eventually decided to commission a brand new play by our colleague, TV writer David Cantor. – ‘I Play For Me’ – which features a male rock star with his own gifts and flaws.

This gave us a balance between the two acts, and the character playing young Kathy Kirby also plays a part in David Cantor’s play, providing a logic and connection to double bill the two plays.

CM: What’s next for the show? Are there plans for further development?
DD: We would love to see the work develop further, and mount a longer run. So far we have received very positive reviews and feedback. It’s been such a great journey to date for me, Tim, and all our talented cast, musicians and creative team.

‘Kathy Kirby: Icon’ is on at the White Bear Theatre until 8 Nov. See this page here for more info and to book tickets.


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