Lunch with Marlene
A play and a cabaret by Chris Burgess, with songs by Noël Coward, Frederick Hollander & Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Buddy Da Sylva, Lew Brown & Ray Henderson, Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh, Richard Whiting & Johnny Mercer, Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner, Charles Trenet, Pete Seeger, Chris Burgess, et al
Noël Coward – Frank Barrie
Marlene Dietrich – Kate O’Mara
Waiter – Neil MacDonald
Stewart Nicholls – Direction & Musical Staging
Neil MacDonald – Musical Direction & Arrangements
Lotte Collett – Set & Costume Design
Mark Dunne – Sound Design
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 30 March, 2008
Venue: New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3
Both Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich were inventions of and by themselves. Born in an age when you gave nothing away about your private life, they kept a certain mystique about themselves even though the worlds of stage and cinema probably knew most of their secrets. Both were exacting performers, professional to their fingertips, who would not suffer fools gladly. They each had a hard-won reputation to uphold and nothing was going to spoil that. They may have been indiscreet in their love lives but then they lived in an era when neither the general public nor even the press talked of such things. Being so much alike in many ways and, being the highly-talented professionals they were, they were on an equal footing when it came to being friends.
Chris Burgess’s one-act play has Marlene and Noël meeting for lunch one day in London in 1970. Marlene has phoned Noël, desperate to meet him. Both try to arrive at the restaurant in disguise, despite their being instantly recognisable. Noël is on time but Marlene, who was always late, turns up an hour later under a big floppy hat and wearing dark glasses. Noël orders food, Marlene orders a gin and tonic, announcing “I never eat”. What follows is a conversation between old friends, recalling good times and bad in a pithy portrait of two vast egos at play on the same level, bitching to each other about life and dishing out the put-downs. Dietrich could keep her end up but nobody could deliver a one-liner quite like Coward.
In just a single hour Chris Burgess encapsulates these two talents and certainly gets the best out of them. It’s an entertaining look at ‘celebrity lives’ but it also shows the darker side of being famous. Dietrich was notorious for the number of lovers she had, usually the leading men from her films, and Coward became a confidant to whom she opened her heart. Noël also confessed that he was “no good at love” and recommended that they rise above it and move on. It was Coward who suggested Dietrich do cabaret and concert work after her film career was over, and she in turn helped him reinvent his cabaret act for Las Vegas which led to a revival of interest in Noël’s work.
Kate O’Mara as Dietrich and Frank Barrie as Coward both bring their own undoubted talents to the parts. O’Mara’s Marlene both looks and sounds even more like the real thing and Barrie conveys brilliantly just the sort of pixie-ish insouciance that was the essence of Coward.
After the interval the two performers present something that never actually happened in real life – they appear in cabaret together. Coward did once introduce Dietrich at the Café de Paris, but here they do a full double-act singing the songs that individually made them famous. Coward is one of very few performers who could sing his own material better than anybody else, but Barrie does moving versions of ‘If love were all’, ‘I’ll see you again’, ‘Dance little lady’, ‘Poor little rich girl’, ‘London Pride’ and ‘A room with a view’. Marlene’s signature songs include ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby’, ‘See what the boys in the backroom will have’, ‘They call me naughty Lola’, ‘Lilli Marlene’, ‘I wish you love’ and, most touching of all, Pete Seeger’s ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ Together they sing the Maurice Chevalier-Hermione Gingold duet ‘I remember it well’ from “Gigi”. It’s a pity that Noël and Marlene didn’t work together – apart from the odd charity night – for they would have made a grand double-act.
Chris Burgess has also contributed a new song called ‘Top billing’ in which both artists argue about who gets their name first on the poster, no doubt the sort of thing that must have worried them; that and revealing their true age – Dietrich was born in 1901 but denied it and she outlived Coward by nearly twenty years, finally dying a recluse at the age of 91. Coward died a couple of years after this 1970 meeting at just 73. Happy lives? Sad lives? Probably both but together they make for a warm-hearted couple of hours in a show that should not be missed.
- Lunch with Marlene is at the New End Theatre, 27 New End, London NW3 until Sunday 27 April 2008: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., Saturday & Sunday at 3.30 p.m.
- Tickets on 0870 033 2733
- New End Theatre