Mae West, the legendary vaudeville star and Golden Age Hollywood siren, provides the inspiration for Claudia Shear, its author and star, as well as the hard-bitten New York characters she creates, struggling actress Jo and film archivist Charlie, who meet at West’s graveside and embark on a curious love affair.
With the help of a canny stage mother, a gaggle of gay cross-dressers and presumably endless supplies of peroxide, the too-short, too-plump West transformed herself from the “dirty blonde” she was born as to a global icon of gutsy glamour. Fame, fortune and fascination followed via public censorship with early stage Sex through to critical damnation with the film Sextette at the ripe old age of 85.
Lest that leaves you in any doubt, sex was something of an obsession for this “statue of libido”, who claimed to have had her first orgasm at the age of eight, followed by intercourse at 12. And that bawdiness runs delicious riot through Shear’s witty – if initially meandering – script and James Lapine’s zesty production.
On stage, Shear (as both Jo and Mae) is joined by her original, multi-talented co-stars Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman, who play the sweetly confused Charlie (Chamberlin) and a host of eccentric others.
One of the play’s most delightful scenes comes in the form of a clash of wits between West and fellow Hollywood legend WC Fields (who swears he wouldn’t give her the time in a roomful of clocks), but West’s indomitable spirit imbues the whole affair. Like the lady herself, Dirty Blonde and its trio of performers have plenty of attitude.
- Terri Paddock
NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2002 and this production’s original UK season at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The Off-Broadway acting style is totally unique and inclusive. "Mind if we join the party?" it asks, "because we've got this really great story to tell you." We probably haven't encountered it over here since Judd Hirsch turned up triumphantly (if slightly bewildered) at Scarborough's (old) Stephen Joseph Theatre in the 1990s in Conversations with my Father.
But now it's back, with dirty BLONDE, though you have to cut through a swathe of bullshit hype before you get to it. Does it help our appreciation of the piece to know that its writer and leading actress is an erstwhile receptionist at a whorehouse (receiving what, for heck's sake?) or that its director is best known as a collaborator of Stephen Sondheim's? Don't cavil, however: just sit back and savour with unalloyed joy the consummate multi-role acting of Claudia Shear, Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman. We may not see its like for another ten years.
First among equals - because she also conceived the show with director James Lapine and wrote it - is Shear, who doubles as screen goddess Mae West and as Jo, a woman obsessed with the peroxide image of the star who was born a dirty blonde. Mae, who gave her name to an airman's pneumatic life jacket thanks to her embonpoint and, we learn, to a donut for presumably other reasons, spent 70 years from the age of 15 honing, exploiting and finally clinging desperately to her siren image through vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood and Las Vegas.
Shear, who shares neither West's moon face nor her hourglass figure but who gloriously revels in her sheer vulgarity, launches with gusto into episodes from the legend's life, while Chamberlin and Stillman swarm around her with phenomenal energy and minimal physical changes - a pair of specs, a jacket, an arthritic stoop, a stove-pipe hat (for W C Fields) - as a whole cast list of husbands, lovers, lawyers, judges, dancers and bodybuilders.
Yet this is not a bio-show and the genius of the script is the way the Mae West scenes dovetail into and inform the love story of Jo and Charlie (Chamberlin), both submerged in West the myth, which in his case survived and was even fed by teenage meetings with, and a clumsy lunge for his groin by, the ravaged octogenarian. In their obsession with Mae, Jo, thirty-something and the butch one in a litter of married siblings, and Charlie, a sexually delicate film archivist who has nevertheless been a wrestling champ, find love for each other in their shared fetishism.
In conception, writing and in brilliant performance, dirty BLONDE is a show that demands attention and deserves every plaudit heaped upon it across the pond. It's hard to believe it won't make its way to town very soon, but just in case it doesn't, why don't you come up and see it sometime?
- Ian Watson