The indomitable Miriam Margolyes is the archetype Grande Dame, oozing charm and wit.

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
29 March, 2015

Miriam Margolyes skips onto stage and before even uttering a word, her presence, defined by an extraordinary shape and size and a trademark grin, receives heartfelt applause and rousing cheers.

The stage is adorned as a bohemian drawing room; there’s a chaise longue and an old arm chair, reinforced by great piles of books and peppered with memorabilia, and a grand piano. It is the perfect settling for Margolyes, in her very unique and clever way, to share her loves and passions – great literature, fabulous stories, close family and dear friends – with her audience.  Classy nostalgia reigns and, whilst very few watching are likely to be ardent Harry Potter fans, all are caught by her spell.

She is accompanied on stage by John Martin on piano and his music and singing complements the mood.  Unfortunately, he is also required to perform a few character roles and, despite Margolyes’ great warmth and affection for her “chum”, these moments often feel rather wooden and awkward. But he is her foil and watches on with adoration.

Essentially this is a one woman show however, with Margolyes’ superlative ability to inhabit great characters, a feast of wonderful women grace the stage through her, as well as few men at times too. There’s no surprise with the scattering of Dickens, with several extracts taken from her award-winning show Dickens’ Women, but other classics have an airing too, from Juliet’s nurse to Lady Bracknell and Mrs Bennet, with many more in between.

Alongside literature’s greats, there are wonderful anecdotes and impersonations as well. Clasping her hands and shifting her chin, she is the Queen; with a slight purse of the lips and tilt of her head, Dame Maggie Smith. Every rendition and story – from cutting her finger on a tampax machine while audition for Crossroads, to playing Gertrude Stein for a large gathering of naked lesbians – are master classes in comic timing.

Amongst all the humour there are moments of poignant sadness too. Her recitation of Clive James’ poem Japanese Maple holds the air for several seconds after its final word. The story of her grandfather and a diamond, thanks to her incredible commitment to the truth of the moment, chokes throats and brings tears.

However, it is the relationship with her mother that is the backbone to the piece.  Early on, Margolyes explains that her mother would have loved to have been an actress but “it wasn’t what nice, Jewish girls did” so she satisfied herself by performing monologues and plays for the family, in their drawing room. As Margolyes recites words her mother had loved and passed on to her, on a stage designed as a drawing room and with her own receptive audience, parallels are drawn. Replaying some of her childhood joy, she fondly assumes her mother’s mantle too.

Whatever her drive, Margolyes is certainly no regular old lady; she’s more a Grande Dame. Her old fashioned glow and charm is mixed perfectly with an honesty and frankness that possibly explains how someone so English can be so Australian too. And although only granted citizenship by Julia Gillard a few years ago, she is rapidly becoming a National treasure. 

She laughs, “There’s nothing important about me at all really, someone just thought it was a clever title.” Perhaps there isn’t anything important about Miriam, but there is undoubtedly something incredibly special. “Jam” will never be the quite the same again. 

The Importance of being Miriam is presented by State Theatre Company of South Australia, Andrew McKinnon and Adelaide Festival Centre and is at the Dunstan Playhouse until April 2. It tours to other mainland capitals and regional NSW and Victoria until May 24.

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