Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Review I Loved Lucy

A play about a television icon makes Francis Beckett ponder on the cult of celebrity nostalgia infecting current playwriting.  

I Loved Lucy
By Lee Tannen

After The Ball Is Over

Younger theatregoers start here. I Love Lucy was a 1950s' American sitcom which was also shown here starring Lucille Ball and her first husband Desi Arnaz.

The series was fast and funny and established Ball as one of the earliest great female comics.  Children used to badger their parents to be allowed to stay up and watch it.  (I speak on this with authority.)

In the late seventies, when Lucille was in her late sixties, she met a young man in his twenties called Lee Tannen, distantly related to her second husband, who had grown up hero-worshipping her.

He was her friend for most of the last ten years of her life, and he has now written this two-hander play about that friendship.

The best thing about the evening is a wonderful performance by Sandra Dickinson who spits out her lines in just the way I imagine Lucille in old age would have done.

Lee is played with great assurance by Matthew Scott, but he is hampered by having very little to work with.

We learn early on that he is a gay, neurotic Jewish New Yorker and an unsuccessful writer. For the rest, his devotion to Lucille has to substitute for character and, directed by Anthony Biggs, Mr Scott does well to make that even remotely convincing, obliged as he is to tell us frequently, in slightly different ways, how wonderful she is.

The story goes like this. Lee meets Lucy, is overawed, but manages to forge a strong friendship with her. She takes him to parties and first nights, but mostly they play backgammon, and talk, and occasionally what they say is quite funny.

At the end of Act One they fall out, and at the start of Act Two they make it up again. And at the end of Act Two (normally reviewers do not reveal the denouement, but in this case I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s enjoyment) she dies.

That’s it, really, except that after she dies the author seems to remember a few things he wanted to say about what a great genius she was that he hasn’t squeezed in earlier, and detains us for another ten minutes or so while he says them.

There seems to be a growing view in London theatre that if your central character is a famous actor, you need only recount what happened and you can call it theatre.

I’ve seen a couple of shows recently that appear to have been written on that premise, and I don’t buy it.

I need a plot to hold my attention or, at least, an overarching theme or some clever and unexpected insights; and if none are present, then I need a lot of very funny lines.

Mr Tannen doesn't offer any of these things. There are a few good lines, but not enough of them, and  they are not good enough.

“What did the doctor say to the midget? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little patient” is about as good as it gets, unless you prefer “Lucy loved Oprah when Oprah still had a last name.”

I’ll stretch to an amber light on the basis that it’s always a pleasure to watch top class actors at work.

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