Paul Caira reviews I Loved Lucy at London Arts Theatre
‘Ah, who the hell remembers anyway?’ says Lucille Ball at one point early in this play. I must admit the same thought had already been occurring to me. Frankly, I’m not in the first flush of youth, and even I can only vaguely remember the TV show featuring a screechy-voiced red-haired American comedienne who got into scrapes, and dropped one-liners that caused the studio audience to collapse into hysteria. If you’re under thirty, you are very unlikely even to have heard of her.
All the same, I was looking forward to being enlightened about her life, her background, her shows, and her sense of humour, and waited with diminishing patience for this to begin. This play is a simple two hander which benefits from an extraordinary performance from Sandra Dickinson, portraying the famous woman with complete conviction, and from a somewhat more quotidian one from Matthew Scott, playing her star-struck young admirer, Lee Tannen. It suffers, however, from some serious faults which should have caused its backers to reflect long before it reached the stage. First, there is no drama. There are short, fairly dull accounts of already dull events – the time when she was spontaneously applauded at a production of La Cage Aux Folles, and took a bow in the spotlight, for example – but for the most part the ‘action’ consists of the two characters name-dropping over a game of backgammon, while quaffing cocktails. If you are impressed by celebrity and fame for their own sakes, and love hearing the name ‘Cary Grant’ breathed, if you long to visit Beverly Hills simply to look at forbidding gates and dream about the star rumoured to live just the other side, you might enjoy this, but I’m betting that most theatre-goers want more. The row that arises between them at the end of the first act is transparently merely a device to get us to the interval.
Second, there is no interest. The lack of dramatic tension could be forgiven if a scintillating portrait of a fascinating, charming, or flawed human being emerged, but we learn nothing about Lucy beyond the tedious details of Lee’s connection with her, the names of her partners, and her failures, again, all presented in cliché. They laugh together, for example, about Pauline Kael’s review of her appearance in the 1974 musical film Mame: ‘“Maimed! Too terrible to be boring” ’, recounts Lucy. ‘I can laugh about it now, but not at the time!’ Both characters collapse with mirth recalling an occasion when she absent-mindedly tried to pay for his oysters with her drivers’ license. Oh, the mundanity!
Third, the set. Given that the action is almost exclusively set in a hotel room, what is the point of the huge letters of Lucy’s name, if not simply starry eyed admiration. It’s her name! Look, it’s Lucy’s name! Up on the stage! In lights! And why, at the cinema, while they are watching ‘Terms of Endearment’ in 1983, was Lee holding a modern transparent plastic dome-topped beaker such as Starbucks serve frappuccinos in?
This has the feel of a vanity project. Someone – I suspect the playwright, dramatising his own book – has become so determined to bring to the stage what he sees as homage to a star whom he admires, has forgotten to include anything of interest to those not wearing his nostalgic spectacles. Yet the book is a ‘bestseller’ claims the programme, and the show has already had ‘critically acclaimed’ runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre, but for me, this Empress seems to be embarrassingly nude.
Is it terrible? No. It’s too boring to be terrible.
I Loved Lucy runs at the Arts Theatre until 2nd September 2017