I Loved Lucy
24th July 2017
Sandra Dickinson has been absent from the West End stage for too long. I think, in fact, it was as the understudy to Angela Lansbury in ‘Blithe Spirit' – where she got to go on in the ‘understudy run' – that London last saw her, and only once, because Lansbury never missed a single performance. Prior to that, there were more substantial West End performances in musicals like ‘Singin' In The Rain' and ‘Chitty-Chitty, Bang-Bang'. She has also been a popular and delightful presence in a number of pantomimes around the country, and in some films, testimony to her widespread appeal. But why have we not seen her in acting roles more often? Witnessing this powerhouse performance as Lucille Ball at The Arts Theatre, a reasonable answer seems more elusive than ever.
Dickinson is superb. She gives a masterclass in how to fascinate and compel an audience's avid attention, making even her engrossed attention to the dice roll on the backgammon table a moment of magic. Her capacity to find and believe in the truth of the part is flawless. We are with Ball at the close of her career, when in retirement from performing, she takes up with a young and apparently rather aimless man, gathers him under her well-financed wings, and has fun moulding him to suit her needs and fancies. He becomes her amusing little project. In return, his youth and simplicity seem to revivify the ageing star, she stages a return to her triumphant TV stardom; the come-back fails, the relationship collapses; there is a separation, a last-minute reunion, and then – inevitably – death is all that remains.
It is a situation which perhaps could generate some interesting drama, or at least conversations with point and depth along the way. In the hands of a third party, possibly, some more meaningful shape might have been given to the text. However, here, it is the young, young man himself, Lee Tannen, who has taken up the pen of posterity to draw out two hours of chat between these pleasantly oddly matched individuals. Matthew Scott, a charming Broadway leading man, has been drafted in to assume the mantle of the author, and never puts a foot wrong in unfailingly presenting him as a likable, sincere, kind, truthful and thoughtful individual. And, yes, he has had his struggles, too: being gay made him unpopular at school and at home, and that narrative forms the substance of much of his soliloquies addressed to the audience when Ms Dickinson is absent. In fact, there are many occasions when this seems to be what the show is actually about.
Perhaps tellingly, Ball's response to these revelations was to brush them aside and urge Tannen to get on with the more important business of playing a boardgame with her – sometimes for hours on end. Possibly, in such scenes, there are hints of aspects to this relationship that the script does not always very vigorously mine. Well, not until the second act outburst that produces the rupture and estrangement. Who knows.
As things are, the main meat on the bones of this evening (or matinee, and – above all – this show should, if it wants to do well, attract a robust matinee following) is provided by Ball's funny re-telling of encounters with the great and notorious of Hollywood and Burbank. Dickinson makes the most of these and they are often so engaging and delicious that frequently one wonders whether she could not tell them to the audience by herself better, and not have to direct so much of her dialogue in profile, while addressing Mr Tannen's alter ego, Lee.
Meanwhile, unobtrusive director Anthony Biggs keeps the conversation trotting along nicely enough, Gregor Donnelly provides a massive LUCY sign and chat-show set up on a ‘bleeding heart' dais for the stage (always making one wonder what it might have been like to explore that format for this play – the chat show, that is, not Catholic iconography), Tim Mascall's lighting is flawless throughout, making his creative best of the simple set, and Yvonne Gilbert manages multiple levels of sound with great finesse. Dickinson gets to wear some smart outfits provided by Donnelly (we assume), and has access to just one, lipstick red bag. I imagine what we are looking at is what the budget could afford.
How well the show will play in the West End is anybody's guess. In the script, there are multiple references to similar stories that have experienced great success in town – and elsewhere – featuring superannuated female stars taking up with much more youthful male company. But I would not want to tempt fate by mentioning them here.