Pros: It says much about Dietrich, though in a roundabout way.
Cons: This was a well-attended show and by the end of it, the studio was uncomfortably hot.
A frail, elderly blonde sits up in bed, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles, books, phones and tapes. She is carelessly made up and dishevelled, but has the bone structure and bearing of a once-beautiful woman. She is Marlene Dietrich and Miss Dietrich Regrets imagines her during the eleven years that she spent bedbound in Paris, hiding away to protect her iconic image from the taint of ageing.
The play opens on Marlene alone and bored. She flits between listening to her own recordings, drinking, and making phone calls. While calling her friend Louis and begging him to visit, she is wheedling and pitiful; calling her ‘doctor’ in LA and asking him to send more pills, she is seductive; and calling Ronnie Reagan in the White House, she is imperious on the subject of Klaus Barbie, but entirely dishonest about the fullness of her days. Gail Louw’s script, and Elizabeth Counsell’s splendid performance, are quick to illuminate the person we’re dealing with: querulous, manipulative, self-absorbed and yet, still rather magnificent.
Dietrich’s daughter Maria arrives from her home in New York. She is a sensible-looking woman in a neat suit, with a business-like manner. It is immediately obvious that roles have been reversed, with Maria the carer and Marlene the petulant, difficult child. There is something touchingly universal in this portrayal, something that anyone who has cared for, or worried about a vulnerable relative will recognise. There is also a great deal that is specific to this relationship. Not least the fact that Maria has obviously been caring for her mother all her life. She describes a childhood which was never ‘normal’, in which she spent her days at the film studio, surrounded by Marlene’s lovers and acolytes, acting as her mother’s emotional crutch and official tit taper! The play, which is based on a biography by Maria, shows the complexity of this mother-daughter relationship. Maria is deeply resentful of her mother, but bound to her by duty and residual affection. Marlene is largely unremorseful about her failings as a mother and critical of Maria’s life choices. She tries to make the right noises about motherly love, but it’s hard not to conclude that this is mostly because she’s lonely and desperate for an audience,
On paper, it seems obvious that our sympathies should be with Maria rather than Marlene. On stage, it’s not so clear. Marlene is clearly a monster, but she is also witty, subversive, defiantly determined to preserve her image and almost admirably unrepentant about the life she has lived. Over the course of the play, the balance of my sympathy shifts several times but ultimately Marlene is certainly the better company.
At the heart of this show is a superb performance from Elizabeth Counsell, who gives us the full range of Dietrich’s personas – movie star, lover, devoted mother, war heroine and more – without ever moving from her bed, or slipping out of that deep, accented voice. Whilst the intimacy of the St James Studio is perfect in some ways, the size of the stage was unfortunately a constraint to Moira Brooker’s performance as Maria. She has very little room to move around the bed, which makes her efforts to tidy up look fussy and ineffectual, and no doubt makes her a bit anxious about falling off the stage.
My knowledge of Marlene Dietrich is almost 100 per cent greater now than it was before I saw the show. For me it was as fascinating and informative as it was entertaining. But I suspect that Dietrich aficionados would also have found much food for thought in this colourful interpretation of her life behind closed doors.
Author: Gail Louw
Director: Tony Milner
Producer: New Vic Productions
Booking Until: 25 January 2015
Box Office: 0844 264 2140
Booking Link: http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/book-tickets/?event=23370