The refurbished Leicester Square Theatre is the setting for Joan Rivers latest performance, fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe. I arrive to find a well-dressed crowd sipping drinks to the soundtrack of Elton John’s greatest hits, waiting excitedly for the US comic to arrive on stage.
As the name suggests, Work in Progress by a Life in Progress is an autobiographical drama. Although billed as a play, it is essentially a one-woman show with a couple of extra characters to act as glorified live props.
Arriving on stage Rivers sets about explaining that, although the other actors are fabulous, it’s going to be all about her:”Like I’m gonna give them the best lines? Fuck them!” She’s also keen to point out that this won’t be a show with jokes about plastic surgery.
Set backstage at the Oscars, a variety of disasters befall Rivers as she waits to go on stage, accompanied by her hopeless producer (Nathan Osgood) and Russian make up artist (Emily Koslovki).
The tone is set early on by the revelation that not only has she been given dressing room No.2 rather than No.1, her dress is lost, her cheese plate meagre and her make-up artist has deserted her for a younger and more popular superstar (her daughter Melissa). Thanks to the excellently pokey dressing room set, designed by Alice Powell, Rivers feels her star is on the wane again and so begins a recap of the trials and tribulations that got her to this point in the first place.
She explores themes such as the difficulty of being an ageing woman in show business, the realities of family relationships and her ability to keep going through the ups and downs life has hurled her way.
Many of her stories are well documented but there are some new insights like the honest confession about what really happened with Johnny Carson, her husband’s depression and her disastrous film Rabbit Test. Her stories about Mae West’s funeral and kissing Barbara Streisand are in turns poignant and hilarious, her window into the early Murdoch years and the power of the network executive chilling. She adds depth and it feels genuinely confessional and moving in parts.
In a late scene she recreates her sacking from celebrity network E! on Oscar night, with the help of a brilliantly menacing Carrie Paff as a new Network executive on a power trip. She uses this as an opportunity to talk about being fired by Rupert Murdoch in 1986, which infamously preceded the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, and the temporary end of her career.
There is much to laugh and cry about in this production and by combining her confessional style with stand up jokes about Viagra and vitriolic gossip, director Sean Foley and writers Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell brings us a production as unique as Rivers herself. Judging by the standing ovation at the end, fans won’t be disappointed. However, the ‘play’ format, and in particular the extra actors, feels forced and overlong in places and I couldn’t help but wish she’d just stuck to stand-up and insulting Russell Crowe and Victoria Beckham instead.
The show closes with Rivers poised on the edge of a red carpet that snakes upwards into the sky, like a stairway to heaven. Rivers poses defiantly at the foot of the carpet to a flurry of flashbulbs before turning away and walking off stage. Despite being 75, this comedy legend shows no signs of retiring to the Green Room yet and we leave with the words of her favourite motto ringing in your ears “hold your fork, the best is yet to come.’