If the Scarborough production of Marlene is enjoyable – and it is – it is almost totally due to the achievement of one person, plus assorted songwriters dead and gone. Sadly the play is not the best tribute to the playwright, the late Pam Gems, whose death was announced during the rehearsal period. The design and the music do their job, the production works well enough without showing Chris Monks at his most creative, two of three acting performances add nothing to the gaiety of nations, but Sarah Parks in the title role is a revelation!
The construction of Marlene is a cliché in an evening of clichés. Marlene Dietrich is preparing for her one-woman show in Paris in 1972. She rants at her two companions: the aged dresser who has not spoken since Dachau (another cliché) and the infatuated female American playwright who runs and skips and flatters and is allowed one kiss. Marlene agonises, suffers stage fright, reminisces to the audience, sings some rather good songs from all stages of her career, gives an interview to an invisible journalist and finally presents some 25 minutes of her performance.
There are moments of truth and originality: her memories of Hemingway are affecting, the one-sided interview slyly tongue-in-cheek, the section on Nazism leading up to Parks’ agonised delivery of the song Warum increasingly powerful – but it’s a comment on the play that one of its most telling moments is a song in German and its climax is provided by the singing (with minimal speech between) of eight pre-existing songs.
Given limited opportunities, Loveday Smith (playwright Vivian Hoffman) and Rebecca Jenkins (Mutti the dresser) remain caricatures, Smith’s the more irritating, but that’s the nature of the part. Both do sterling work in the admirable manner of young actors today by boosting Musical Director Richard Atkinson’s instrumental ensemble for the final extract from the show, Jenkins’ cello having been heard throughout to good effect. Jan Bee Brown’s designs for the dressing room simply and economically achieve an image of tawdry opulence.
But none of this is memorable; Sarah Parks is. Her well-deserved popularity with companies such as Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck is founded on very different performances from this. Triumphantly overcoming stereotyping, she captures Dietrich’s mix of the glamorous and the down to earth, of the imperious and knowingly self-deprecating, of the practical and the illogical (simultaneously), all brought together as seamlessly as a rather bumpy script allows. She knows how to time one-liners – and she can do the songs, singing well enough and, in the old phrase, “putting them over” superbly, with due regard to some fine lyrics in three languages.