“Me and Marlene”
Songs by Frederick Hollander, Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson, Cole Porter, Frank Skinner, Frank Loesser, Louis Gugliemi, Edith Piaf & Pete Seeger
Performed by Patricia Hartshorne
Written and directed by Michael Elphick and Patricia Hartshorne
Piano accompaniment by Clare Johnson and John Miles
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 3 April, 2007
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1
Having lived through most of the 20th-century, Marlene Dietrich (1901-92) could be nothing else but an icon. She began her working life in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s as a cabaret singer and actress with legendary director Max Reinhardt. She made her first film in 1923 but it was not until 1929 that she got her first big break in Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel”, the first German film in sound. She always reckoned that Sternberg taught her everything she knew about working in the cinema. He was such a stickler for lighting and cinematography and Dietrich was for ever polishing up her image, reinventing herself and generally making sure she lasted as long as possible, that the habit transferred to her. And it was “The Blue Angel” that introduced the song “Falling In Love Again”, which became her lifelong signature tune.
In her one-woman show Patricia Hartshorne takes these beginnings as a starting point for her portrait of the iconic star. “Me and Marlene” gives the actress top billing over Dietrich as she tells the story of Marlene’s life as one actress to another. She manages a reasonable impersonation of her subject, although vocally she is better in the second half of the show, which covers the post-war years, when Dietrich’s voice had deepened somewhat. Dietrich was a successful film actress for a while, working with the likes of Sternberg, Korda, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Stanley Kramer. But the film career didn’t last and Dietrich went back to cabaret and singing.
Using the trademark clothing that Dietrich used through her long career, a picture is conjured up of a woman at war with herself. Forever becoming romantically and sexually involved with all sorts of men and women – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Michael Wilding, James Stewart, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, Edward R. Murrow and the father of John F. Kennedy – perhaps she was just living up to the title of her signature tune. One actor she never conquered was Fred McMurray (perhaps because she couldn’t ‘pwonounce’ his name?). The big love of her life was French actor Jean Gabin who wanted to marry her, but she would not divorce her only husband, Rudolf Sieber, a Roman Catholic film director (for Paramount in France).
Patricia Hartshorne goes through the various guises in which we recognise Dietrich, from the early skimpy underwear scenes of “The Blue Angel” through the trench-coat days of “Lili Marleen”, a song she made famous during World War II, to the glamorous white fur-coat of the later cabaret performances when she reinvented herself again with the aid of music director and arranger Burt Bacharach. En route Hartshorne essays the other famous songs, such as “They Call Me Naughty Lola”, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”, “Black Market”, “The Laziest Gal in Town” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, the latter one of the most affecting and plangent songs Dietrich performed.
When her terrific legs (“they may not be much but I know what to do with them”) eventually gave in (“the things that made me a star finally became my downfall”) at the time she broke her femur during a performance in Australia, Dietrich then became a recluse. Her final film was “Just a Gigolo” although she was the subject of Maximilian Schell’s film biography of her, but she refused to appear except as a voiceover. She died in Paris aged 90 in 1992 and was buried in her home city of Berlin. A difficult woman all her life, Dietrich comes across in this portrayal as an unhappy being who was maybe never really completely fulfilled, although she loved cooking and housework and listening to her own applause which she had specially recorded to play to friends. If Patricia Hartshorne’s portrayal lacks the charisma of Sian Philips’s amazing impression of a few years back, it is still a timely reminder of a great star and her trials and tribulations.
- ”Me and Marlene” runs until 7 April at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 16B Jermyn Street, London SW1
- Telephone: 020-7287 2875
- Jermyn Street Theatre