Lola: The Life of Lola Montez

Trestle Touring in collaboration with Increpación Danza
Riverside Studios
(2008)

Lola who? Lola Montez - if you're not familiar with the name, it's one you won't forget - ever - once you see this show. The show tells the incredible story of Lola Montez, a real character, born 1821, died 1861. An Irish lassie by birth, she moved to India early on in life, then was sent back to boarding school in England. The system failed to indoctrinate her, and the result was a rebellious, individual, unique creature who went on to create a fictional heritage for herself.

She became a self-styled diva when the opportunities for a woman of her background to become a diva were few and far between. She became a notorious female celebrity when women generally had to keep well and truly clear of notoriety if they were to maintain their dignity. And she became a woman able to attract and satisfy some of the most accomplished creative geniuses of the day - George Sand, Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas the elder, not to mention her highest conquest - King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Lola was an opportunistic maverick, who sought to make the best of every opportunity offered to her.

Lola Montez may be an unfamiliar name today, but she was certainly known in her time. To play the character and story of Lola Montez is a gift to any actress. Georgina Roberts, as Lola in this production, takes on the challenge with relish. She succeeds impeccably in portraying the multi-faceted and complex nature of Lola's personality. Her Lola is wracked by insecurity, buoyed by doubt. Her Lola is seductive and violent at the same time. Her Lola is sensual with an ugly streak. The performance smacks of genius. Unfortunately, the quality of genius didn't carry through to the rest of the performance.

Georgina Roberts, along with the virtuosic Ricardo Garcia on Flamenco guitar, would have carried the show. Dramaturg Esther Richardson, however, chose to develop a script involving a secondary character, played ably here by Fiona Putnam to provide a foil for Lola to play against. Putnam's clear characterisations steered the ramshackle script as best she could through turbulent situations which hampered her at every turn.

For example, Lola Montez had an affair with Franz Liszt which was referred to in the play. The affair was so overwhelming and all-encompassing, apparently, that the composer ended up leaving her alone in a hotel room. He left a considerable sum at the front desk to pay for the damage he knew she would incur when she found out he had left her. On stage, the couple climb in and out of a cabin trunk, with few references for the audience to guess the situation.

Strange juxtapositions of time, such as the inclusion of a line from Adler and Ross' song from the 1950s musical Damn Yankees - 'Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets' - provide another example of things which seemed out of place in the context. The least credible dramaturgic situations which Fiona Putnam was called to play were Lola's mother and sister.

Lola's mother, at first, sitting in the audience, interrupting the show by reading from the bible; Lola's sister later switching roles with her. Was this a live performance, in which these female characters colluded, with everything being laid out in advance, or was it conceived as an improvised situation? Maybe one without the other would have worked, but Lola has to react to both. If her mother is surprising her, then why does she accept her into the act? If her sister is colluding, and they are performing a rehearsed show, then the scene in which Lola's sister challenges her, seeking out her weak spot, resulting in suggesting they switch, doesn't work. It loses all credibility, not to mention dramatic impetus.

Having said that, Georgina Roberts and Ricardo Garcia manage to carry the show successfully right through to the end. Magical moments between all three members of the cast create great theatre. In the scene where Lola seduces Liszt, I have rarely seen castanets used so expressively. In the scene where Lola discovers the joys of sex early on in life, fans are used with artistry and technical aplomb. Although the script let the actors down in many places, they presented an entertaining evening of classy theatre: an evening which will leave the name and character of Lola Montez indelibly imprinted in your minds.

Ends 2 Nov 2008: touring in Spring 2009

Lucy Ribchester reviewed this production in Bristol

Leon Conrad