Lunch with Marlene

Chris Burgess
New End Theatre
(2008)

A large brandy and a gin & tonic for hors d'œuvres followed by a scrambled egg and two black coffees may not sound like much of a lunch, but Kate O'Mara's (Marlene Dietrich) is a lunch date you would not want to miss. Frank Barrie (Noël Coward) also stars as a fellow diner in Burgess' witty and humorous script directed by Stewart Nicholls.

The Marlene we meet is a cynic and in many ways disillusioned. She is in her late 60s; in fact a few months short of her 70th birthday. She has had her third facelift, a daughter and has been diagnosed with cervical cancer. What is more, the money that finances the luxurious life style she is accustomed to is running low.

Burgess' inspired piece gives suave Coward droll and incisive lines. Burgess uses him as a contrasting mirror to Dietrich whose strong political convictions are teased out through Coward's challenges, comments and questions. He reminds her and she recalls: it is just like an entertaining and engaging duet. The conversation exposes views held by the two superstars of their day. Coward manages to challenge and dismiss any hint of Marlene's self-pity. He recalls the height of her career, her contribution to the war effort, contrasting with his Blithe Spirit which merely put smiles on people's faces. She recalls her excitement on D-Day, her visit to concentration camps and the shame of it all, in particular when visiting Bergen-Belsen learning that her brother-in-law was the entertainer in the Camp. Coward removes the sting from every painful memory. When she, a German born woman, expresses her inability to comprehend how her people could do what they did, Coward explains, "The Germans like to be told what to do. Hitler liked telling them what to do. It was a match made in hell".

Coward's admiration for her is transparent and his remarks are littered with teasing comments such as "sex for you is a version of a handshake", while on that point he confesses that for him sex is now more "a recital than an aria". Her affection for him is evident from her looks and demeanour. O'Mara and Barrie's superlative performances are cleverly interrupted by the waiter (Neil Macdonald) who manages to generate a minor sub-plot.

After the interval the lunch is replaced by a cabaret conducted by the two protagonists with the waiter at the piano. They sing about twenty songs. Some are sung as a duet and others divided between the two. Neither can sing, but then it was the lunch we were invited to, the cabaret seemed a mere extra.

Running until 27th April

Rivka Jacobson