Yootha Joyce may have slipped from modern memory but back in the 1970s she was one of the biggest stars on TV. As Mildred Roper, she was on screen for most of the decade in Man About the House and the spin-off, George and Mildred. But fame took its toll and alcoholism was the cause of her early death. Caroline Burns Cooke has resurrected Yootha in a warts and all portrayal that steers clear of tribute act sentimentality to show us a woman with a difficult upbringing, who went on to become a successful stage actress, before finally hitting sitcom gold in her 40s.
It can be hard to work out the perspective from which Burns Cooke is telling Yootha’s story, she is clearly looking back over her career, but there is no framing mechanism to give us a point of reference. She begins with a bolshy rendition of Always Something There to Remind Me, before a straightforward chronological telling of her life story. Even her name hints at the instability of her upbringing, born to a well-known singer and his pianist wife, Yootha was somewhat suspiciously named after a dancer in her father’s touring company. Brought up on ‘negligence and boarding school’, Burns Cooke gives us a woman driven by her insecurities and drive to prove that rather than ‘her not being good enough, nothing was good enough for her.’
Burns Cooke is a superb actress, her face is alive with expression, capturing the pain behind Yootha’s success and the crippling nerves that no-one could have suspected, given her bawdy persona. There are also lovely vignettes of the people in Yootha’s life, a particular highlight being a portrayal of the legendary theatre producer Joan Littlewood, with whom Yootha worked on famed productions like Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be , though, as she self-deprecatingly says, usually as another one of a string of tarts.
Testament of Yootha is a play that transcends its subject, the pressures on her and the lack of control over her own life reminded me of Sheridan Smith and the trials we continue to put popular actors through today and is well worth seeing for an audience well beyond those that actually remember Yootha Joyce.