Kiki: New play to tell tempestuous tale of 'the Queen of Montparnasse'

Painter, singer, model and friend to everyone from Jean Cocteau to Ernest Hemingway, Alice Prin, better known as Kiki, was one of the stars of Jazz Age Paris. Playwright Clive King tells Mark Fisher why he felt moved to write about her now – and how a near-death experience influenced his final script

Clive King feels lucky to be alive. Early in lockdown, the playwright and screen writer suffered a spinal stroke. The medics said his survival was touch and go. He was in hospital for nine months. Back on form, he knows how close a shave he had. "It was life changing," he says.

What he remembers most vividly are the intense waking dreams as he started to come around. "My personal experience of it was dark and dystopian, but with odd flashes of comedy," he says. "I was imagining I was in a prison camp and was about to be sent off to be exterminated. But friends of mine were infiltrating the staff of the camp in disguise because they were part of the resistance. This whole elaborate narrative was created which, on one level, I knew wasn't real but it felt 100 per cent real."

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He talks about this cheerfully, more happy to have got through it than sad to have endured it. "Statistically I should be dead," he says. "So everything's a bonus and nothing is very scary."

Hilary Brooks and Clive King PIC: Calum O'Brien / Play, Pie and Pint
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He has extra reason to be positive because the experience helped him crack the problem of how to write his latest play, Kiki, a musical for Glasgow's lunchtime theatre, A Play, A Pie And A Pint.

It tells the story of Alice Prin, the darling of Jazz Age Paris, who was variously known as the Queen of Montparnasse or, more simply, Kiki. She was a painter, a singer, a model – frequently posing nude – and a friend of everyone from Jean Cocteau to Ernest Hemingway. Her tempestuous eight-year relationship with artist, photographer and filmmaker Man Ray put her at the heart of the Dadaist movement.

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King had wanted to tell her story for some time, not least because he thought it would be the perfect vehicle for his friend Christine Bovill, the Glasgow singer who specialises in the kind of sultry French chanson popularised by Edith Piaf. His own near-death encounter gave him the key to telling the tale.

"We join Kiki in 1953 on her deathbed," he says. "Time is fluid, her lucidity comes and goes and we're dipping in and out of various points in their relationship. The Man Ray we're introduced to is actually a figment. I don't think I would have had the idea of framing it around a delirium episode if I hadn’t had the experience of emerging from a coma."

For his long-term collaborator Hilary Brooks, King's recovery was tough to get through. Because of pandemic restrictions on hospital visits, she would keep him company on the phone during the day, while his sister in Australia would do the night shift. When the composer began working on the score for Kiki, emulating the musical styles of the 1920s, she had a lot to process.

"It was a very dark time," says Brooks, whose previous collaborations with King include Meeting Matthew, Melania and Wee Free! The Musical. "It is the greatest miracle when you survive something like this, when the oxygen has been switched off and you've had the phone call from the surgeon saying you need to prepare for the worst. So obviously, it's dark."

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What fascinates King is the push-and-pull relationship between Kiki and Man Ray. Although Ray's is the better-known name today, it was Kiki who was the most celebrated when they met. This was not just because of her notoriety in the easy-going années folles (or crazy years). She was the one whose exhibition sold out on the opening night, while his artwork remained stubbornly on the walls.

"A big driver in their relationship was professional jealousy," says King. "We explore the tensions between the muse and the artist. Man Ray has lower expectations of his muse than she has of herself. He is desperate for recognition, but he can't turn a corner in Paris without seeing a poster with her face on it and it starts to drive him a little bit mad. It would be very easy to write Kiki as the stereotypical goodtime girl, but we portray her as a woman with limited agency but a desire for agency."

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In the musical two-hander, which King also directs, the part of Man Ray is played by John Jack, with piano accompaniment from Brooks. The score takes its cue from Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, jazz and music hall, and even has a shot at the avant-garde. "It's an era I adore," says Brooks. "In French chanson, the storytelling is always to the fore and those are the songs I love writing the most with Clive because the narrative has always been so important in all the shows we've written together. The music is a homage."

That includes a piece inspired by George Antheil's score for the experimental movie Ballet Mécanique. "It's atonal and arhythmic," she laughs. "The two in the cast were, like, 'Really?'"

"Four minutes of dissonance never hurt anybody," laughs King.

Now putting flesh on their collaboration in the rehearsal room, they are in awe of what Bovill and Jack are bringing to the show. "It's brilliant when you have two insightful, intelligent, talented people inhabiting the characters," says King, delighted by the coincidence that Kiki is also the pet name given to Bovill by her family. "It's a bit of a dream team."

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Brooks can only concur: "It's an extra joy to celebrate Clive surviving unbelievably difficult circumstances."

Kiki is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, from 21–26 November,