For better or for worse, the entertainment world doesn’t have characters like Lucille Ball (Sandra Dickinson) anymore. Hers is an amusing and sharp-tongued character to see portrayed on stage, but I couldn’t help feeling that she may have been rather difficult to work with. But to reduce Ball to being one of those divas from a bygone era would be an oversimplification of this larger than life lady, even if Lee Tannen (Matthew Scott) at one point thinks of himself as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, lying face down in a swimming pool having been shot dead by Norma Desmond, a (fictional) former star whose golden days are long gone.
The show is, for the most part, talking heads, and the first half seemed a little longer than it needed to be. It’s had two previous runs, both at the Jermyn Street Theatre, and here, in the larger Arts Theatre, it loses the living room ambience it had in the smaller studio space. Or so certain members of the opening night audience who have seen this show in its previous incarnations tell me. They also mention that some additional content has been inserted, compared to the show’s first run. It is long enough now to justify an interval, and the end of Act One cliff-hanger is suitably dramatic.
Not all the set was necessary, or even helpful – a large (and, frankly, ugly) sign, reading ‘LUCY’, over-dominates the stage, to the point where nobody could be reasonably blamed for thinking the show was called Lucy, rather than I Loved Lucy. On the subject of the show’s title, is it Lucy Ricardo, the lead character in the television sitcom series I Love Lucy, that Tannen loves, or Lucille Ball? The number of times Tannen launches into a recollection of a scene from one of the many episodes of I Love Lucy becomes almost irritating. No wonder Ball eventually snaps and launches into a tirade.
For the most part, however, the audience is treated to a most affectionate portrayal of a lasting friendship. Tannen, or at least this representation of Tannen (the story is a true one, except when the script is candid enough to state it isn’t) does come across as an obsessed figure, continuing to bask in Ball’s reflected glory to the bitter end. In some respects, the narrative is somewhat too faithful to the truth to be consummately riveting – watching games of backgammon is hardly compelling viewing.
I shouldn’t knock authenticity too much, however. The second half is stronger than the first for its recollections of what the great and the good said and how they (mis)behaved. An impersonation from Ball of Richard Burton is especially worthy of mention. The focus on Tannen gives the impression that Ball prized him, in her decline, over members of her own family. The ending is a little bizarre, though it is an improvement – I am reliably informed – on the previous incarnations of this show.
The key strength of this production lies is in Sandra Dickinson’s vocal delivery and comic timing. In the case of the former, there’s a palpable sense that Lucille Ball is back: having seen the show, and then looked at video clips of the actual Ball online, Dickinson’s execution is flawless. In the case of the latter, the humour barely lets up. Matthew Scott, meanwhile, voices a number of minor characters as well as the near-ubiquitous Tannen, including an Irish chauffeur and Bob Hope (don’t ask), demonstrating beautiful versatility. An excellent and elegant production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
I Loved Lucy is a personal portrait of an iconic comedic entertainer whose public face is all too well known. But what was Lucille Ball really like? And how did she choose to live at the end of her life? Out of the spotlight. Based on his best selling memoir, Lee Tannen’s funny, bitter-sweet play reveals the real-life Lucy and what is was like being her friend to the end. Most people who have written about Lucy never even met her. They have relied on others to fill in the blanks. Lee relied solely on Lucy. And he paints a rich personal portrait that can only add to our love of a Hollywood legend. Lee Tannen first met Lucille Ball as a child but cemented their close and enduring friendship as an adult. During the last 10 years of Lucy’s life – years mostly spent out of the spotlight, and much of it around a backgammon table – Lee became Lucy’s confidante, spending time in her Beverly Hills and Palm Springs homes, travelling with her and entertaining her on his turf in New York City.
Sandra Dickinson returns to her acclaimed role as Lucille Ball.
Matthew Scott is making his London acting debut as Lee.
Set and Costume Designer Gregor Donnelly
Lighting Designer Tim Mascall
Sound Designer Gareth McLeod
Casting Director Jane Deitch
Produced by Gary DiMauro
General Management: Hartshorn – Hook Productions
Running Time: 2 hours (including interval)
I LOVED LUCY
by Lee Tannen
Great Newport Street
London WC2H 7JB