My favourite Dietrich letter was the rocket she got from Noel Coward. She’d written to him, broken hearted, about her sad affair with Yul Brynner. The Master, if I may paraphrase, ordered her to tell ‘Curly’ to sling his hook. Coward really tore a strip off poor Marlene, telling her to stand up, be strong, and have nothing to do with men who were unworthy of her.
Unfortunately for her, the general gist of his letter remained unheeded. Fortunately for us, copies of her letters – and their replies – survive; as do her diaries. And they all add up into a fascinating insight into the flawed self-esteem of “the most glamorous woman in the world”. Her words, not mine.
This is a beautifully constructed show of sentimental ‘standards’ and emotional outpourings. The letters and diary entries pop up between a plethora of sensuously delivered songs that Dietrich performed herself …from the famously plaintive wartime ballads “Falling in Love Again” and “Lili Marlene”, to less iconic comic ditties like “The Laziest Girl in Town” and “I Refuse to Rock and Roll”.
Marina Laslo is in her element as the seductive chanteuse in plum red satin evening gown, long gloves, upturned nose and smoky blond hair. Her delivery is heavily accented and rather more Native Russian than High Deutsche…though that barely matters. She has Dietrich’s laconic style and flirtatious stage presence neatly buttoned and Rob Halliday’s fabulously moody lighting plot serves her well. The stage is ringed with an arc of traditional theatre lights on standards, apparently wired into the same desk Marlene used.
There were magic moments when spots were refocused upon her by her co-star James Meunier, who expertly handled the pithy narration and most of the correspondence. It was very much a matter-of-fact pairing. Sexual chemistry was minimal and I’m afraid a couple of their dance routines were insipid; but the hugely passionate and poetic letters shone though and were irresistibly titillating. Marlene was frank, intimate and detailed about her merry-go-round of lovers. Meunier’s straightness let the letters breath, unaided.
The vignettes came quickly. She stole a jeep to drive after her lover who was steering a tank into war. Josef von Sternberg’s acting-by-numbers style of direction was wittily exposed, and there were heavy hints of an affair with President Kennedy’s dad.
The little band, by the way, led by Rob Barron was absolutely spot on both in their accompaniment and the way they stitched sung and spoken word together.
At the end of the show – which I thoroughly enjoyed – I fear I was none the wiser about Dietrich’s command. Maybe her self-adoration made others adore her too. And no one can underestimate the impact of a German nightingale singing for the Allies.
So why were their so few in the audience? I’m afraid the print publicity for the show, and its title, are hopelessly unappealing; which is little short of criminal for an evening as endearing and enlightening as this. Marlene would be furious.