Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Theatre Review • ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY & DOROTHY FIELDS FOREVER • Old Vic/King’s Head • 2002


Elaine Stritch – At Liberty

If you are tired of tin-pot stars fashioned through the medium of small screen follies, then don’t miss the other pair of dames on the London stage. Elaine Stritch at the Old Vic and Angela Richards at the King’s Head are giving luminous and gutsy performances, the first as herself, the second as lyricist Dorothy Fields.

Elaine Stritch has been stretching those elegant legs for most of her 76 years and doesn’t put a foot wrong in her Tony Award-winning show, Elaine Stritch – At Liberty. Where sentimentality and over-indulgence might be expected, Stritch’s acerbic and witty tracing of her life in showbiz and her battle with alcohol is joyful entertainment: she holds us in thrall for nearly three hours. In a nod to Judy Garland in A Star is Born, she is dressed in a simple white shirt and black tights – those who complain about knobbly knees, and some have, should find something else to do with their time – and plays out her life against a black-painted back wall with just one, plain chair. The only hint of showbiz glamour comes from the swagged curtains at each side of the proscenium arch.

Regrets, she has a few but what the hell, the dame’s still here. The applause which greets her first number elicits an irony-laden ‘yes—well’ which brings down the house, and the script, ‘constructed by John Lahr’ and ‘reconstructed’ by Stritch, runs the gamut from the tale of Ethel Merman stopping mid-song to physically eject of a member of the audience during There’s No Business Like Showbusiness – Stritch was Merman’s cover – to her own summary dumping of actor Ben Gazzara in the hope of an affair with Rock Hudson. Not a wise move.

One of the funniest, and most beautifully executed, sequences is the story of what happened when she agreed to appear in Pal Joey at the same time as understudying Merman on TNBLS: suffice to say the theatres are a train ride apart and the Old Vic’s curtains prove their worth in the telling. But Stritch moves the heart as well when she touches on the death of her husband John Bay after barely a decade of marriage, and though she tells it without sentimentality, it is quite apparent that the sadness remains. By the same token, she is refreshingly direct about her love affair with alcohol until diabetes and reality put paid to it. This dame is not one to wallow in self-pity – hell, she enjoyed those times. And though she may not have felt quite the same about being sacked from a stage production of Claire Booth Luce’s The Women starring Gloria Swanson and Margo Champion – exquisite take-offs included – she can take as much pleasure out of picturing the scene as we can in the watching.

She and Lahr weave the dialogue in and out of the songs and the favourites are there. Can we ever listen to some other diva sing Sondheim’s Ladies Who Lunch or I’m Still Here and not wish it were Stritch? As Nicholas de Jongh points out in his review for the Evening Standard, the voice no longer has quite the ‘light and shade’ of old, but the difference is inconsequential and she can still put these numbers across the footlights with an energy and punch that puts many a younger performer to shame. I cannot think of anyone else who could bring off such a show without inducing moments of queasiness or with quite such dignity. If you’re looking for a real star, she’s the one. Don’t miss her.

Angela Richards is no less engaging as Dorothy Fields. Eden Phillips and David Kernan’s tribute show, Dorothy Fields Forever, has returned to the King’s Head and remains a glorious, not to say enlightening, show. Did you know, for instance, that Fields wrote the lyrics to Bojangles of Harlem and A Fine RomanceI Can’t Give You Anything But Love and Big Spender in a career which spanned six decades? She was the first female to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and deservedly so.

Richards’ singing voice is seductive in its power to draw you into Fields’ love affair with words and the actress’s rapid, almost dead-pan delivery of the dialogue actually serves to highlight this love and Fields’ extraordinary way with words. Her life was not without its share of sorrows and disappointments but she just about managed to roll with it, a period of drinking notwithstanding. Richards conveys these highs and lows without once inviting us to dwell on the bad just as you believe that Fields herself always managed, eventually, to pick herself up, dust herself off and start all over again. Richards is best known from television, the BBC’s Secret Army in particular, but she deserves to be on that West End stage with the best of them. Should she not be playing the stage mother from hell in Gypsy? That I would love to see.

Playing Fields’ younger self or linking the songs, the rest of the company provide cracking support, particularly Rebecca Lock. Looking exactly like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Lock can sing and dance her way through a range of styles with charm and verve, and is a perfect candidate for what is surely an overdue revival of Fields and Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity. Nick Winston, who is and was previously responsible for the inventive and economic choreography, is new to the cast and was trying a little too hard on the first night, giving him a somewhat anxious expression. But this is a minor quibble in a show, tightly directed by David Kernan, which had the King’s Head audience cheering.

Such tribute or compilation shows can often become tedious if due care is not given to the narrative. It is a fine art choosing what and how much to include about a person’s life and work. Eden Phillips has come up with just the right mix and the whole moves along at a perfect lick. It is a show to gladden the heart and if you missed it earlier in the year, don’t make the same mistake again.

Sarah Vernon © 18-10-02

Elaine Stritch At Liberty was at the Old Vic and Dorothy Fields Forever at the King’s Head in October & November 2002.

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