Bertice Reading (1933-1991)

    Bertice Reading,    by Ida Kar,    1957,    NPG x129562,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Bertice Reading, by Ida Kar, 1957, NPG x129562, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Bertice Reading, singer, actress and revue artiste, was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. Bertice was in the second year of pre-medical studies when her mother’s illness and a crisis in the family finances propelled her to enter a talent contest. Her subsequent victory earned her her first break, a place in the band of the exuberant vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. While appearing in Paris she was offered a part in the London revue The Jazz Train (1955) which took the form of an imaginary tour through black musical history. Young Bertice stopped the show with her impersonation of the great blues singer Bessie Smith.

Bertice could sing almost everything: gospel, blues, popular songs, but on her arrival in London she was eager to try her hand as a “straight”, dramatic actress. “If you can make people understand the point of a song in less than three minutes, it’s not so hard to make them understand the point of a script in more than two hours,” she said. In 1957 Bertice’s wish was granted when Britain’s top theatre director Tony Richardson cast her as Berenice Sadie Brown in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding at the Royal Court. Later that year Richardson cast her as the nurse in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. When the play was transferred to Broadway in 1959, Bertice found herself nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play. In 1958 in London there was acclaim for her roles in Langston Hughes’s Simply Heavenly and as Mrs. Yaj in Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth but, after returning to New York in 1959, she spent most of her time in the USA, or Europe, working as a cabaret artiste.

Her next extended engagement in London was the Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller show Only in America (1980) and she also put on Pack Up All Your Cares and Woes, which was to be the first of four seasons of one-woman shows at the King’s Head in Islington. At the end of her performances, Bertice told her audiences: “If you’ve liked it, tell your friends. If you haven’t, keep your big mouths shut.”

Remaining in London, Bertice joined the National Theatre Company and made her Shakespearean debut in Measure for Measure. She then joined the cast of the West End musical One Mo’ Time. In 1982 she played Mrs. Yaj again in a revival of Valmouth for the Chichester Festival and, in 1983, during her one-woman show Every Inch a Lady, Bertice donned a pink satin tutu, danced to a version of “The Sugar-Plum Fairy” choreographed by Wayne Sleep. She exited on the line: “Nobody loves a fairy when she’s 40.” After transferring to the Donmar Warehouse, Every Inch a Lady became the longest running one-woman show to be staged in the West End.

In 1984 she performed in Bertice is Back at the King’s Head, and on television she starred in Channel 4’s Ladybirds. Bertice also made a couple of films: The Moon in the Gutter (1983) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1986).

Cabaret remained the mainstay of Bertice’s work during the 1980s, and in 1987 she appeared at the Folies Bergere in Paris where she had the dubious distinction of singing while walking across a tightrope! In 1988 she made a triumphant return to West End musical theatre as Bloody Mary in a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. She stopped the show with “Happy Talk.”

After she died, Patrick Newley wrote in The Stage: “To watch her was like going to an extravagant party and being dazzled by an outrageous hostess sipping champagne and throwing acid quips at all the guests.” Veteran jazz singer Adelaide Hall told the The Mail: “Bertice was really a very close friend. I shall remember her most perhaps as an absolutely fantastic comedienne.”