theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Whenever I visit the V&A I always, and I do mean always, have to walk round my favourite section of the Museum. It is the part that houses the wayward children of any museum’s collection; the Fakes, Forgeries and Plaster Cast copies of ancient originals.
Looking at any piece of antiquity can be a wonderful experience. But there is a delightfully dubious twist to this experience when the particular piece you are viewing is a finely crafted fake. Or even, in the V&A’s case, when the plaster copy you are standing in front of is Michelangelo’s David or Trajan’s Column (in two halves) from Rome’s Forum.
The sensation is made up of some weird blend of appreciating the skill of the workmanship, being staggered by the work involved, dazed by the folly of it all and titillated by the sheer naughtiness of daring to make a Copy. It is reverence for the irreverent.
It is a special sensation and one I thought I would only ever find in the environs of South Kensington but, lo and behold, its theatrical equivalent has made an appearance at the New End Theatre in Hampstead during a performance of Lunch With Marlene.
This new play and cabaret is the creation of writer Chris Burgess, who has concocted a gloriously entertaining evening out of the private and public faces of Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward. These two notorious superstars of the twentieth century were very old friends and regularly met all over the world for dinner and a chat. Act One at the New End focuses on a fictionalised version of one such meeting in a London restaurant in the late 1960s.
Burgess wisely starts the play off with a healthy slice of Coward-esque humour which instantly relaxes the audience and paves the way for the arrival of Marlene. Noël’s vocal flamboyance is the perfect balance to Marlene’s more stringent and staccato vocabulary and the unusual dynamics of their cut and thrust conversation are enthralling. When they bicker, as only old friends of a pensionable age can do, it is hilarious.
But Burgess manages to quite believably deepen their conversation and to take these two icons back into the more serious and intimate parts of their lives. So along with all the showbiz champagne, you get the bitters of Dietrich’s lost homeland, her privations and perils when entertaining the troops of the Second World War and her intimate description of the horrors of Belsen.
After the interval, Burgess pushes his play even further into the realms of fiction by creating a two-handed cabaret show-that-never-was for Marlene and Noël. In lesser hands, this would have been an idea too far but Burgess has cunningly laid a lot of the groundwork for this cabaret in the first half lunch conversation. Songs that we have heard discussed at lunch are included in the cabaret repertoire and some conversational topics are revisited or even parodied in song form.
Lunch With Marlene is ultimately a craftily devised piece of theatrical fakery. The second half could so easily have been an optional add-on extra – the cream in the coffee, so to speak. But when the first half allows you to ‘meet’ these two icons off-stage with their professional guards down, it suddenly becomes so easy to believe, in the second half, that you are watching the real Coward and Dietrich perform. Strangely, even the canned applause that is piped over the sound system at the start and end of each song manages to contribute to this illusion. It is real and fake at one and the same time.
Performance-wise Lunch With Marlene cannot get any better. Kate O’Mara and Frank Barrie are both exceptional in their roles. Barrie is vocally the quintessential Coward and drops the bon mots and acid drops with style and aplomb. It is hard to get laughs with such a familiar song as ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ but this performer manages it with ease.
O’Mara’s Marlene is a remarkable creation which manages to be part physical recreation, part vocal impression and part illusion while being wholly believable. Her lunchtime Dietrich moves from irascible old Valkyrie to a frightened and vulnerable woman with perfect ease. But her cabaret Marlene bristles with a steely sexuality that summons the audience to ‘come hither’ with just a wave of the hand and then stands them to attention with the most pianissimo of cat-lady purrs. Whatever the ‘Boys in the Back Room’ are having, we want it too.
Lunch With Marlene may have just spoiled my future visits to South Kensington. Silent and motionless copies of gods and goddesses will never have quite the same allure now. I will always be wanting the ones that speak, sing and dance.
The V&A will certainly have to up its game.
Jack Hughes © 2008
Originally published on R&V 02-04-08
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