Friday, 23 December 2016

We all did... I Loved Lucy, Above The Arts Theatre, London

Lucille Desíree Ball

"No goodbyes Doll, we never say goodbye..."

Lucille Ball starred in I Love Lucy from 1951 to 1960 and in two more successful long-running sitcoms for CBS: The Lucy Show (1962–68) and Here's Lucy (1968–74) - an unparalleled dynasty of sit-com success.

At one point it was calculated that 99% of Americans would recognise her face and that she was bigger than John Lennon (and whoever he was bigger than...). We all not only know Lucy but probably love her too and I can't remember I time when I didn't know who she was.

Lucy in full flow
All stars fade from themselves as much of the rest of us and not even "Lucy" could maintain her level of success - an Aaaron Spelling-produced eighties revival finally proving that point.

For the last decade of her life, Lucy kept company with a distant cousin of her second husband,  Lee Tannen upon who's book and play this production was based. Mr Tannen was on hand to introduce proceedings and, whilst you couldn't judge his backgammon skills, you could see how his wit and good humour would have been welcomed.

Directed by Claudio Macor (The Tailor Made Man and In The Dead of Night reviewed elsewhere on this blog) this was a workshop presentation which as Tannen pointed out, had taken less time ot rehearse than his journey time from the USA.

Sandra Dickinson and Christopher Tester
This sprint to performance was barely noticeable as the two leads Sandra Dickinson and Christopher Tester gave highly-impressive performances especially the former who, let us not forget was playing an icon. Those of us with memories of Ms Dickinson's Trillian in Hitchhiker's Guide and her other goofy Monroe-moments were astonished at her mastery of the Ball growl; a gravelly rasp that delivered hot gossip and incendiary one-liners with equal zest.

That's not to say that Mr Tester doesn't also give a fine performance and,judging from the photographs Tannen shared after the performance he bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. A boy who knew every single episode of I Love Lucy almost by heart, he first met Lucille aged nine when she married that cousin Gary Morton and was only to meet her again many years later in 1981 when he was working as in theatrical promotion.

Mr and Mrs Arnaz
The pair very quickly bonded as Lucy encouraged him to be as honest and open as possible - accepting his sexual preference without a beat and regaling him with delicious gossip as they began a decade of Backgammon... "if you didn't play with Lucy, you didn't stay with Lucy.."

Soon Lee is part time pal and part time PA, booking hotels in New York - anywhere but the Upper West Side - "it's too Lauren Bacall!". He is rewarded with stories of Thelma Todd having an affair with CG (not Clarke but Cary...possibly) and how the former never really recovered from the death of Carol Lombard - "the most beautiful dame I ever saw."

Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers and Lucy in Stage Door
Amongst the fly-through of Ball's cinematic history she claims to have discovered Anne Miller who seemed to have thought she was the re-incarnation of Cleopatra (not another one!) and with whom she starred in Stage Door (1937). Then there was the near affair with Henry Fonda in The Big Street (1942) - "the best film I ever made" - Jane Fonda later told her that no marriage would have been possible as they would have had to call the company Fonda-Lu.

Lucy and Henry in The Big Street
As it turned out, of course, the company she did form was Desilu with Desi Arnaz after marriage to the Cuban percussionist and after they had fought so hard to get the TV show featuring this "mixed" marriage made and then made on their terms - what a force they must have been.

The play's trick is that it manages to move through the years without sounding like a catalogue and much of this is down to the interplay between the characters as played by Dickinson and  Tester as well as the snappy dialogue they have been gifted.

Bob Hope and Lucy: King and Queen
Everything is stripped down in this workshop format with only two additional voices heard - Lee Tannen himself and Sally Ann Triplett as US journalist Diane Sawyer.

But, if the play is this good after only three working day's rehearsals... it's going to be great in full performance. A well-written play about one of the most important cultural figures of the Twentieth Century told with intimacy, style and more than a few laughs.

Who knew, for example,that Shirley MacLaine always referred to Lucille as "Mum" - "maybe in another of her lives?" mused Lucy and, that their attendance at a premier was delayed by Michael Jackson's inconveniently combustible hair: how long does it take to put out a fire on his head pondered Lucy impatiently?

Lucille in 1988
In his introduction Lee Tannen said he had been advised by British friends of the vast difference in meaning between a British "quite good " and an American one... well, just to make it clear, this Brit thought I Loved Lucy was very, very, good! I look forward to seeing it again next year!

Further details of the project are available on Twitter @ILovedLucyUK and Facebook: watch this space...

Key take-away: "Never cut funny".

Silent PS: For various reasons, the I Love Lucy TV show was shot on film and the great German cinematographer Karl Freund worked on episodes from 1951-6 developing processes that would ensure that the lighting would be even over each aspect of the set (and that wouldn't be the only silent film connection from Lucy's life).

IThankyou Rating ****

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