Yootha Joyce (1927-1980) is remembered by those of us of a certain age as the sex-mad Mildred Roper from the sitcom George and Mildred, which made her a household name in middle age.
Starting from a theatrical background (the Clapham Grand), and becoming one of the company actors in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, the young Yootha fell into a career of playing “tarts, slappers and whores”.
Caroline Burns Cooke has created an interesting one-person show, recreating the persona of Yootha Joyce with her faded glamour, foul-mouthed tirades, and air of redundancy. She sings in a broken voice about “something there to remind me” and “we will never meet again”.
Joyce’s air of bravado in this piece masks an insecurity about her appearance which raises its head time and time again: “what’s that fucking ugly bitch doing?”, “I was sexy, but not on purpose – it has nothing to do with looks”. Her songs and skits form a barrier between her and the audience, even though she engages with them when she’s “on”.
Burns Cooke captures the very essence and veneer of Joyce recounting moments from her career and personal life: the parents who neglected her, the husband who pursued her (“what’s under your Brentford nylons?”), the appearances in plays by Pinter and Sartre.
Describing her life as an “empty place” where she placed career before personal happiness (including having a child), Joyce captures our sympathy and understanding – Burns Cooke delivers her play in a manic tone which smacks of desperation behind her smiles, shrugs and chatty engagement with the audience.
By the time fame and fortune came through Man About The House, where we first saw the Ropers, and the sequel George and Mildred (“we were like rock stars, we even had a tour manager”), Joyce was already a high-functioning alcoholic, seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle, and succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty-two.
Testament of Yootha is both affectionate in tone and caustic in its view of a woman who, despite having a certain amount of attractiveness and a true comic gift, was ultimately her own worst enemy. It is a little uneven in tone, but is well-written and delivered by Burns Cooke and directed well by Mark Farrelly.
Mood lighting and slight changes of costume indicate different time periods and mental states, but perhaps if you know little about Yootha Joyce, you may struggle to keep up with this fast-paced portrait of an ambitious yet insecure woman. As an observer who remembers the actress well, I enjoyed this piece very much.
Testament of Yootha is available through the Online Fringe Festival until 10 April. It was filmed at the Museum of Comedy on 11 February 2020.
All images are screencaps from the recording.