“Time heals all” or so they say but the reality is that time is rarely kind to anyone. As we grow older, our bodies change for the worse, we start to lose our faculties and we spend too long wishing we were the youthful, vibrant person we once were. That’s bad enough for an everyday Joe like me, but imagine you are a screen Icon, not just A screen icon but one of THE screen icons, what would your reaction be to the ravages of time? Possibly the answer to this question can be found in “Miss Dietrich Regrets” at the St James Studio.
It’s the late 1980s and Marlene Dietrich (Elizabeth Counsell) is in her Parisian apartment. Bedridden and alone, this is not the glamorous star worshipped by millions but an old lady who has everything she needs in her bedroom – a huge bed, a small cooker, non-prescription drugs (best not to ask how they were obtained), whisky (lots of whisky), tapes of her singing and a telephone which she uses constantly – even calling President Ronald Regan, a conversation for which in a wonderful touch, she put lipstick on – to keep reassuring herself that she isn’t on her own. She has one rule in her life now, only three people – her Concierge, her daughter Maria and her ‘close’ friend Louis – is allowed to see her in her current state, to the rest of the world she must remain forever “Marlene”.
Maria (Moira Brooker) as physically unlike Marlene as you could imagine, arrives at the apartment. In her 40s, wearing an expensive but dowdy outfit there is none of the glamour associated with her mother at the same age. What there is though is the same almost imperious personality, and the two of them very quickly assume what feels their normal behaviour pattern, getting under each other’s skin in ways known only to close family members. Maria is worried about the deteriorating state of Marlene and is desperately trying to help her but the lady herself is having none of it and employs a variety of techniques – telling old stories for the 100th time, whining like a child, accusing her daughter of bullying her – to deflect Maria from her purpose. Maria reacts to this by telling Marlene a few home truths, some of which are known but never acknowledged (the truth about Papi for example) and others Marlene had known nothing about during her time as a pretty absent mother to her child. Although the two of them spar and snipe like two tabbies in a box, there is genuine love between mother and daughter and this really shows in the final seconds of the show as Maria accepts the inevitable and does what she must to once more protect her mother.
Ultimately, to me, this is a story about familial love. Marlene may have been absent for much of Maria’s life but tried to do what she thought was best for her daughter whilst still retaining a life of her own – and let’s be honest that’s a juggling act all parents face at some time in their lives. Marlene’s ideas of how a child should be raised (apparently, you can learn more life lessons on a movie set than in school) may not suit everyone’s taste but, when you look at the sensible, well-adjusted lady Maria has grown into, you have to wonder if maybe Marlene had a point. Marlene made mistakes such as Maria’s governess but, unlike the title of the show, she regrets none of them really, although she very reluctantly acknowledges there is one thing she does regret doing nothing about. Maria isn’t perfect but she wants to do what is best for her mother, as she has always done, not out of a sense of duty as Marlene accuses her of, but because she genuinely loves this irascible old woman whose glory days are gone and being slowly forgotten by the public that once adored her.
Director Tony Milner has put together a fantastic show to deliver Gail Louw’s wonderfully written and obviously well researched play. I have no idea how long the two leads have worked with each other but their performance is truly superb. They genuinely come across as a bickering mother and daughter, interrupting each other’s stories and at times being downright rude in that way that, to the outside world sounds so awful but, is really a sign of family love. At the curtain call, there seemed to be real affection between Elizabeth and Moira as they took their very well deserved bows.
The Icons season at St James Studio has been a wonderful start to 2015. Whoever came up with and commissioned the idea should be applauded for their efforts. I’ve seen three of the five shows and each one has been a revelation making me want to find out more about Bette, Joan, Marilyn and now Marlene as this amazing show brings the season to a truly fantastic end.
Review by Terry Eastham
Miss Dietrich Regrets
A Play by Gail Louw
Marlene Dietrich was one of the most famous movie stars of all time. She became a legend, an icon, without apparently ever growing old. ‘Miss Dietrich Regrets’ is a revealing and poignant new look at the aging Marlene, alone in a Paris apartment, battling with her daughter to retain her independence to the very end.
Gail Louw and New Vic Productions have produced a number of new plays including Blonde Poison which toured nationally and won an Argus Award for Artistic Excellence at the Brighton Festival in 2012. Her recent play Duwayne won Best New Play at the Brighton Fringe Festival 2014. This latest production stars Elizabeth Counsell, well-known as a classical actress and from the TV series ‘Brushstrokes’, and Moira Brooker best known as Judith in the acclaimed BBC series ‘As Time Goes By’.
Starring Elizabeth Counsell and Moira Brooker
Directed by Tony Milner
Designed by Kenneth Mellor
St James Theatre
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes without an interval
20th – 25th January 2015
Friday 23rd January 2015