It’s a rare event when Andrew is the youngest member of an audience (it never happens to Phil, of course).
But that’s what happened last night at Lunch With Marlene – a one act play followed by a cabaret. The genteel New End Theatre, Hampstead seemed to be attracting a disproportionate quantity of unmarried gentlemen of a certain age (the Whingers have no idea why – it’s just a play about Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich featuring Kate O’Mara) plus the customary sprinkling of NW3 senior stalwarts.
The lobby of the New End Theatre was proudly displaying publicity from journals such as the Ham and High and a photocopy of the Sam Marlowe’s kind review in The Times. The Whingers stopped to admire the display but Andrew was having one of his Miss Marple moments and stood staring fixedly at the reviews: something was wrong, terribly wrong. But what?
He had no fewer than 10 minutes to mull on the problem while waiting for the play to commence.
The first half of Chris Burgess‘s concoction imagines a lunch between Noël Coward and his great friend Marlene Dietrich in London in 1970. While Andrew exercised his little grey cells, Phil passed the time admiring the condiment set on the restaurant table and tutting over the state of the glassware which was somewhat dingier than he would expect from the class of restaurant that Noel Coward would have patronised.
Phil had been attracted to the play by the word “lunch” in the title and was expecting copious amounts of food to be consumed and hopefully an entire new chapter for his food-on-stage thesis. In the event, Coward ate only a scrambled egg with a brandy of “oceanic proportions” on the side and Marlene stuck to the booze. Their liquid lunch was the subject of many enthusiastic nods of approval from the Whingers.
Andrew, on the other hand, had been attracted by the presence of Kate O’ Mara whom he once saw in George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance in the role of Polish aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska (note to Mr Hytner: please put this play at the top of your Shaw revival list). But more importantly, Ms O’Mara featured heavily in just about every formative TV experience of his early life: Triangle, Dynasty, Absolutely Fabulous, Dynasty, The Brothers, Dr Who, Blankety Blank, The Avengers, and such classic films as The Plank and The Vampire Lovers (with George Cole!).
Anyway, back to the play. Frank Barrie plays Coward (very convincingly) and the first act involves him counselling Dietrich who is in financial dire straits and seeking advice on whether or not to write her autobiography, the advance for which she has already spent. Is her life worth writing about? What has she really achieved?
Burgess’s play is very witty and the performances so charming that the restaurant scene mostly manages to negotiate the problems of the bio-play although the effort involved means it does exhaust itself somewhat and Mr Burgess shows great wisdom in changing tack for the second act. But the skill is palpable – cramming in so many facts without making it sound like a Wikipedia page is quite an achievement (and one apparently beyond the wit of Howard Brenton).
As good as Frank Barrie’s Noel Coward is, the Whingers couldn’t take their eyes off Marlene and we are talking here about the same two Whingers who had slobbered over Siân Phillips in Marlene – A Tribute to Dietrich at the Lyric in 1997 or thereabouts. Phillips received an Olivier nomination for her efforts and a Tony nomination in New York the following year. Strangely, that production also consisted of a play followed by a cabaret.
At 68 Ms O’Mara is exactly the right age (Dietrich would have been 68 for most of 1970 – though she would have denied it) and at times you really can believe she’s Dietrich. It may have helped that the Whingers were sitting in the centre of the front row and could enjoy every excessive daub of mascara close up, (Phil hadn’t enjoyed such interesting mascara since Geraldine Chaplin’s unusual use of the medium in The Orphanage) but O’ Mara was so in character they almost expected to have to catch her as she fell off the stage. Her acting was superb too – Andrew was impressed by her listening skills and her very nuanced face acting. Very impressive.
The second half of the evening imagines the joint cabaret that the friends never gave. It rattles through some of Coward’s and Dietrich’s more famous repertoire including “Room With a View”, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, “Lilli Marlene” and Andrew’s signature anthem “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have”, to name but a few. Neither Barrie nor O’Mara are great singers, but then neither were Coward and Dietrich. So there.
Ten years ago this would have probably got a west end transfer (although it would have clashed terribly with Marlene – A Tribute to Dietrich, but you know what we mean) but times have changed. However, it was certainly a sell-out and for wit, warmth and charm, you really can’t touch this delightful fluff.
In the unlikely event that it does transfer, they need to get a new poster. O’Mara looks much more like Dietrich than she does on the poster. Phil insists that they also need to invest in a new frock for the cabaret.
As the Whingers wandered contentedly back through the lobby after the show the spirit of Jessica Fletcher entered Andrew and he realised what had been troubling him about the display: that photocopy of The Times review – where were the three stars he had seen in the version he read on the train? True, it read like a four star review, but there were definitely three stars awarded. And here, in this version, no star rating at all. Some ardent sniffing on Andrew’s part detected not a whiff of Tippex, but all the same… most peculiar.