Previously known as the Hippodrome Theatre, the Talk Of The Town Theatre / Restaurant was opened in 1957. The original theatre had undergone extensive refurbishment to make it into one of London’s top night spots.
The idea was to provide somewhere in the heart of London where patrons could dine and dance and also be entertained by a spectacular revue and then an headline act. It was not too long before it was established and was attracting top international stars. I’m not sure when Shirley made her debut at this venue but in the 60s she became one of the top acts to play there. Her engagements there certainly pulled the crowds and she received rave reviews for her appearances.
In 1967 it was announced that Shirley would be taking the lead role in a new musical called ‘Josephine’ by her management. The musical was being devised by her manager Kenneth Hume who was also her ex-husband. It was also announced she would play an engagement at London’s Talk Of The Town as a ‘farewell to cabaret’.
I was 20 and I had read reviews of her previous engagements there and so decided I wanted to go. Along with two friends I booked a table for her last night. It cost 69/6p each (approx £3.50 or $7) and included the price of admittance, three course meal and chocolates and coffee. Wine would be extra. It was expensive to me as the most I’d paid to see her was 25/6p (£1.25 or $3) for a front row seat the previous year at London’s Prince Of Wales Theatre.
A week before her engagement was due to begin Kenneth Hume died. I wasn’t sure she would go ahead but it was announced she would fulfil it. It must have been a very difficult time for her but she decided she wouldn’t let her fans down. The opening night reviews said she was outstanding and she wore a sensational ‘gownless evening strap’! They also told that her closing number was ‘I Wish You Love’ but she left the stage in tears half way through the song. She returned to tremendous applause and cheers and finished the song. It was obviously a very emotional night for her.
My two friends and I took a taxi from the hotel and arrived at around 8pm. I was most impressed when I walked in and saw how lavish the place looked and that was only the entrance foyer! Once inside and sat at our table I was very pleased. We were very close to the stage and the view was brilliant. The meal was good and the review ‘Wild West End’ we all thoroughly enjoyed. After the review people were dancing and the evening was passing very quickly.
Before I knew it the dance floor was cleared and raised up to extend the stage. It was 11pm and Shirley time! Before I knew there she was on stage in a beautiful pink kaftan style coat. Very similar to the one pictured on the sleeve of the 1970 TOTT album. After three songs she took the coat off to reveal a stunning shimmering silver gown. Very simple in design with no cutouts but a very low cut back and a train on it. It was gorgeous but I was a little disappointed as I wanted to see this ‘fabulous gownless evening strap’ the newspapers had been on about. Still she was there singing for us and so I soon forgot my disappointment. The songs included the hits she’d had also some new ones newly recorded songs. I particularly remember very emotive versions of ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile’ and ‘If You Go Away’. There was also a novelty song called ‘The French Foreign Legion’ which I’d never heard before or indeed since! One of my favourites of the night was a most dramatic version of the Cher hit ‘Bang, Bang’. She brought the house down with it and received a long standing ovation. I always wanted her to record it but unfortunately she never did. Half way through the act after ‘I (Who Have Nothing)’ she left the stage as she always does now but when she returned she’d changed. You’ve guessed it – she was wearing the ‘gownless evening strap’! I can only describe it as a gold coloured bra and split skirt all held together by a strap with just one hook!! She sang ‘Big Spender’ and I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen her sing it before (she’d only just recorded it) and how that hook held I have no idea!! She made a joke that if it gave way she would be arrested!! All too soon came the final song although Shirley had been on stage for nearly two hours. She had given one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. She stood on stage wearing a dark green velvet cape with feathers around the edges and a single spotlight on her. She started ‘Goodbye …’ and almost immediately you could see her dark eyes well up with tears. It was a very emotionally charged version of ‘I Wish You Love’ but she had the audience on their feet shouting for more before the orchestra had played the last note. She received an astounding standing ovation and she took a lot of bows. She didn’t sing another song but I don’t think she could have topped that last one.
I was exhausted when it was all over. I’d been through every emotion with her. I left knowing that I had just witnessed one very special night.
I never got to see her there again and unfortunately the musical ‘Josephine’ never happened. Seeing Shirley is always a memorable occasion but that is one very special performance that will always remain with me.