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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Dirty Blonde
Duke of York's Theatre Summer 2004

This comic salute to Mae West, the self-mocking sexpot of the 1920s and 1930s, was a big hit Off-Broadway, winning every award going, both for the play and for its three performers. It then transferred to Broadway, where it again won all the awards. And now it has come to London, where it will probably not last a month.

Before getting to the show itself, it's worth asking how something like this could happen. Maybe New York was so starved for entertainment last year that they all over-reacted in their praise. (Such things do happen.) Maybe it's just a case of different national senses of humour (No Alan Ayckbourn play has ever been a hit on Broadway). My guess is that the three performers have been doing this show so long that some spark that was there in the beginning has just faded away without their realising it. (There are some moments - I'll get to one later - that clearly want to be more theatrically exciting than they are.)

At any rate, Claudia Shear's play is at best a modest little romance and affectionate salute to a film icon, and at worst a dreary couple of hours that just never really come alive. Shear imagines two modern Mae West fans, played by herself and Kevin Chamberlin, who are a pair of life's little losers brought together by their shared obsession and stumbling slowly into a sweet little romance.

Meanwhile, their tales and memories of West are played for us in alternating scenes that trace West's rise from vaudeville trouper to Broadway and Hollywood star and then her decline into Norma Desmond self-delusion and obscurity. Shear plays Mae in these scenes, with Chamberlin some of the minor male figures in her life and Bob Stillman doing some flashier turns as a vaudeville performer, gay hairdresser and the like.

We don't want a simple impersonation when Shear is playing Mae, and except for a few moments, she doesn't attempt one (which is doubly wise, because she's not very good at it - you could do a better Mae West than she does.) But we would expect her to capture the essence of the woman - that special combination of energy, ambition and self-mockery that made her a star.

And we don't get it. Shear as Mae is as uncharismatic as Shear as the fan, and with the two men playing a series of losers and hangers-on, there's an enormous hole in the middle of the play where some evocation of Mae West should be. And without her, there's simply too little here to hold the stage or your interest.

A prime example - the first act ends with what should be a sure-fire coup de theatre. In the play's double time scheme, two things are happening simultaneously. In the past, Mae, who up to this point has not been very successful, is being offered a new costume - the 19th-century gown and hat that would become her trademark - by a gay friend. (Incidentally, one of the play's nicer conceits is that Mae discovered her persona by copying drag queens). Meanwhile, in the present, the fan is dressing up as Mae for a Halloween party.

Claudia Shear is thus behind a screen, being handed parts of the costume by men in the past and present. And then she steps out from behind the screen and we witness two epiphanies. The sad little fan gets to be her idol for the night, and Mae finally finds the image that will make her immortal.

It should knock us out. It clearly wants to knock us out. And it just lies there, with no theatrical magic to it at all.

And the whole show is like that.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dirty Blonde - Duke of York's 2004