Come up and be me some time

Broadway's hit show about the legendary blonde bombshell Mae West transfers to London
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The Independent Culture

For her role as the Thirties Hollywood sex siren Mae West in Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear has only a handful of highly rushed seconds to make each of her numerous costume chang-es. "I come off stage and it's like I've been mugged," she says.

For her role as the Thirties Hollywood sex siren Mae West in Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear has only a handful of highly rushed seconds to make each of her numerous costume chang-es. "I come off stage and it's like I've been mugged," she says.

The play, written by Shear, delineates the growing friendship of two fans, Jo and Charlie, who meet on a pilgrimage to West's grave. Shear plays Jo, as well as West herself in flashbacks to the life and career of the legendary vaudevillian.

Dirty Blonde began life in 1997 at the instigation of James Lapine, who directed the Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank and directed and wrote the book for the musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, now running in Berlin. Lapine directs here, too. "He thought it could be a one-person show, but I knew that it had to be a love story," Shear says.

Dirty Blonde was a hit on Broadway in 2000, with five Tony nominations, and was a success at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2002. "I was always going to play Mae West," Shear says. "Mind you, we had auditions for my understudy the other day and the British actress we have chosen is great. I get very superstitious about even talking about such things as understudies in case it tempts fate, but I have only missed two shows since the very start. I've played Mae West perhaps 900 times now, and only missed two or three performances - and that was because I was so sick that they sent me home."

Shear, who has just married, says it took a few years to get her Broadway show to Britain. "It is an absolute joy to bring it to London. There is a lot that I don't understand about moving a production and making it happen." The original cast will continue their roles in London: Kevin Chamberlin, who plays Charlie, recently appeared at the New York Theatre Workshop in a musical workshop, Wise Guys, directed by Sam Mendes; Bob Stillman, most recently seen on Broadway as Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman, is playing the (many) men in West's life.

In 1993, Shear's autobiographical play about her varied job history, Blown Sideways Through Life, won her an Obie (off-Broadway) award. Her next project is a film, Five Pretty Girls, based on her experience as a brothel receptionist.

As soon as she started researching for Dirty Blonde, she fell in love with Mae West. "I knew about West, being a silent movie and vaudeville fan myself, but then, with the research, a whole new cat falls out of the bag." Shear trawled through archives and libraries, unearthing characters such as Frank Wallace, a dancer to whom West was briefly married as a teenager.

Back to all those costume changes. Is it confusing to switch so often between two characters? "No, it is visceral," Shear says. "That is like asking an actress how she remembers her lines. It just happens, because that is what you do."

'Dirty Blonde', Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6623), previewing now, opening 14 June

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