Legend comes to life
First there was a mysterious 19th century death, then the most kissed face in history – and now a spectacular show. Terry Redhead hears the tale of L’Inconnue.
There is, on the face of it, nothing outstandingly newsworthy about a local group putting on a piece of musical theatre across Norfolk and Suffolk on several dates throughout the remainder of 2013. The Legend of L’Inconnue (the unknown woman) is, however, not your average background story of a musical.
In 1888 a beautiful young woman drowned in the River Seine. Her body was taken to the mortuary in Paris where she remained unclaimed and unwanted. Her enigmatic smile captivated the mortician so much, that he immortalised her beauty in a death mask.
That mask became the face of Resusci-Anne, the CPR training manikin. Now her lips have been kissed by millions across the world and that unknown woman has saved countless lives.
In life, the mysterious girl seemingly achieved so little, yet after death her face became the most kissed of all time. Her smile has been an inspiration to writers and artists for more than 100 years.
L’Inconnue’s identity was not discovered until 1933 when, by chance, a Scotland Yard detective on a lecture tour to Buenos Aires found a photograph. On his return to Europe his investigations discovered her identity as 16-year-old Hungarian girl Ewa Lazlo, who had gone to Paris to seek her fortune. He also uncovered a love affair, blackmail and murder.
In the late 1950s, Norwegian doll-maker Asmund Laerdal was approached to make a resuscitation manikin. He had saved his two-year-old son Tore from drowning, so clearly wanted to support such a project. His father-in-law had a bust of L’Inconnue and Asmund decided to use her face for his manikin because of her serene calmness. Resusci Anne was born.
If you have taken a first aid course and practised resuscitation on Resusci Anne, then you are already involved in the musical story of The Legend of L’Inconnue. Some five years ago Lesley Chopin heard the story when Tore Laerdal, now head of Laerdal Medical, was on a Radio 4 programme. It inspired her, and now the story has been brought to life by Lesley and her husband Denis and their Mulberry Hawk band.
Having heard the Radio 4 show, Lesley had composed a first song before arriving home. An artist friend, Alexandra G, was also inspired and created the first painting to illustrate the song.
The couple’s collaboration has led to each of the now 19 songs having an accompanying vibrant painting and as the musical project has unfolded additional photographic work and video has expanded the images which are projected throughout the performance to enhance the visual experience.
Lesley has also produced a hardback book looking at the various facets of the story, lavishly illustrated and with the lyrics of all the songs. “This is a show with a difference as it brings together a haunting story that finishes with hope and the saving of life. It is told through exhilarating, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous music and songs, vibrant artwork, sensitive and poignant dance, drama and video.
“Most of the story is fact and is still relevant today. It is probably unique in the way it is delivered,” said Lesley.
The show’s first performances in 2012 were at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay, The Forum in Norwich and at The Cut in Halesworth. In January this year it was taken to Carton House, Dublin and The Stavanger Concert House in Norway, the home of Resusci Anne. The appearance there celebrated the 100th anniversary of Asmund Laerdal’s birth and son Tore introduced the performance.
Dereham’s Memorial Hall was the setting for the show in April and in June the show was due to travel ‘home’ to the Palais des Congres in Paris. Future local performances are on July 25 and 26 (including a matinee) at St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth; at The Cut, Halesworth on September 14; and at the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft on November 22 and 23 (including a matinee).
Lesley and Denis Chopin’s band Mulberry Hawk is responsible for the show. Lead singer Lesley was born in Doncaster. She moved to Germany at the age of 11 and in the 1980s saw a major breakthrough working as a background vocalist in studios in Europe. Later a solo career was born and after touring Europe for 25 years, she returned home to perform in England in 2002.
The Legend of L’Inconnue is her brainchild and she wrote all the songs and performs as lead singer. She also produces and directs the show. Her husband, born in France, moved to London in 1968 and after learning to play the oboe, found a broken guitar in a dustbin. After repairing it he never put it down and has played in various bands. He met Lesley a few days after she returned to England when she moved in next door. Denis helped with the songs, the pair married in 2007 and they live near Lowestoft.
Mario Price, who lives near Gorleston, Gary Durrance, also from Gorleston, and Richard Hubbard, from Corton, complete the line-up. Mario joined in 2011 and plays violin and mandolin. Gary was born in Leicester in 1961 and plays drums and percussion while Richard plays keyboard, bass and accordion.
As well as the singers and musicians, the show relies on dancers and actors. David Norfolk lives in Hethersett and saw his acting skills resting dormant until he retired from the Fire Service in 2008. He narrates the story, and has three roles as Superintendent Dr Harry Battley, as Asmund Laerdal and as a first aider.
Lead dancer Faye Hanson performs four roles, as Ewa, Harry’s dancing secretary, The Masked Dancer and Resusci Anne. Faye has a BA honours degree in dance, and, lives in Fakenham.
Born in Norwich, Louise Smith is also a dancer in the show despite joining the cast originally as a make-up artist. She took a 2002 break to tour the world and later trained with Stephen Knight and The Night Shift Dance Company.