Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Lunch with Marlene and Noël

Chris Burgess
New End Theatre production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2009)

Publicity photo

Described by Burgess as “two of the greatest illusionists in theatre history” Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward presented to their public the facade of a glamorous, sophisticated lavish lifestyle, which seems not too far from the truth despite their humble origins, but the writer has imagined for us a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ view as, stranded at fogbound Heathrow, they accidentally bump into each other in the exclusive VIP lounge circa the late sixties. Now ageing, and after a long and affectionate friendship, they can let their hair down a little with each other and admit that life has not always been so perfect, and keeping up appearances becomes more difficult. Dietrich confesses to more than one face lift, Coward admits to a little work on the jaw line, and both bemoan that fact that so many friends have died. “The grim reaper has been more like the combined harvester”.

This is the substance of Act One as they sit drinking champagne, attended by a very deferential waiter, impressed by his two celebrity customers even though he mistakes Dietrich for Greta Garbo.

Kate O’Mara is the epitome of the glamorous, autocratic, drawling Marlene Dietrich, arriving draped in furs, and with her naturally low voice dropped to an even lower register as she laments the fact that she is now almost destitute. “Don’t know where your next Chinchilla is coming from,” mocks Coward, trying to jerk her out of self-pity and encourage her to write her autobiography - a project for which she has already received (and spent) the money with no inclination to get down to the task.

Frank Barrie is calm, assured, almost languid as he fires off witticisms and often caustic remarks. He has caught the very essence, mannerisms and spirit of Coward and almost has the same appearance, and the two actors perform so comfortably and naturally together that is very easy to believe we are watching the real thing. The affection between them is evident, as is the hint of loneliness behind the faces shown to the public.

Comparing their war-time experiences, Coward reflects that he wrote Blithe Spirit to put a smile on the faces of the war-weary at home, while Dietrich was at the front boosting the morale of the Allied troops, yet the guilt at betraying her homeland and the shame that her brother-in-law was entertainments officer for the Nazis at Belsen is still causing her pain. No shame, however, when reeling off her impressive list of famous lovers!

Act Two is an imagined rehearsal for a cabaret act they will perform and includes such gems as “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”, the wicked “Don’t let’s be Beastly to the Germans”, Marlene’s famous “Boys in the Backroom”, a hilarious and perfectly timed “Let’s Do It” which had some drama students in the audience in fits, and “Mad about the Boy”, to name but a few. While neither of them are great singers, their rapport is endearing and the music is beautifully performed by pianist Neil MacDonald, a musician who ‘sometimes works as a waiter’ and who caught Coward’s eye in the first act.

First opening in 2008 as an hour-long play at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, it has been extended to two hours and is now touring with the original cast and creative team (including O’Mara’s son on lighting design). Intriguing, poignant and fascinating and well as very funny and with some great music - a gem!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor