Thelma and Louise: the sequel

For 25 years Thelma Barlow was much loved as Mavis Riley in Corrie. Discussing her latest role as Louise Brooks in a new play with Peter Eyre, Paul Taylor discovers she is not what you'd imagine
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The Independent Culture

Get this for a great dramatic situation. Brilliant interpretative thinker visits the home of a brilliant, now beleaguered artist, on a perilous jaunt that has worse long-term consequences for her than for him. They meet in the kind of heightened out-of-time communion of spirits that everyone - critics as well as creative types - longs for. Their dangerous encounter deserves to be remembered forever, as much for what it symbolises as for what happened in private at the time.

Get this for a great dramatic situation. Brilliant interpretative thinker visits the home of a brilliant, now beleaguered artist, on a perilous jaunt that has worse long-term consequences for her than for him. They meet in the kind of heightened out-of-time communion of spirits that everyone - critics as well as creative types - longs for. Their dangerous encounter deserves to be remembered forever, as much for what it symbolises as for what happened in private at the time.

So, over to you, Alan Bennett, to give us a tragicomic theatrical version of that momentous clandestine meeting - in 1945 in Leningrad - between the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova, the great refusenik Russian poet.

Meanwhile, however, we can enjoy a considerable consolation prize in the shape of a new play, Smoking With Lulu, by the young Canadian dramatist, Janet Munsil. Cut to the (comparatively) Free World some 33 years later, and you have, in the US, an intriguingly distorted image of that earlier situation. One big difference is that Sir Isaiah never, so far we know, got himself up in full drag as Akhmatova, whereas there are excellent pictures of Kenneth Tynan - the best theatre critic of the second half of the 20th century - in flagrant impersonation of his idol, the American actress Louise Brooks, the sexiest and most intelligent film star of all time. They met in 1978 and, boy, did they click.

In the late Twenties, Brooks had found herself in decadent Berlin, starring in G W Pabst's immortal silent movie, Pandora's Box, as the mythic and iconic Lulu, that "creature of impulse, [an] unpretentious temptress capable of dissolving into a fit of giggles at a romantic climax, amoral but selfless, Lesbian and hetero, with that sleek black cloche of hair that rings so many bells in my memory; the only star I can imagine either being enslaved to or wanting to enslave." The words are, of course, Tynan's.

Male critics, in these attenuated times, don't often clamber into frocks. Honoured and rare would be the party nowadays that welcomed Michael Billington done up to the nines as Gloria Swanson or Michael Coveney parading himself as Bette Davis. Still, we live in hope. Stalking round the fancy-dress ball as Brooks, Tynan claimed to have come as Baden-Powell. Oh, what real fun drama criticism must once have been. In Smoking With Lulu, the focus is on the three-day encounter in 1978 between the doyen of theatre journalists and the silent-screen siren who had long ago turned her back on movies and gone into a 50-year period as a recluse, occasionally firing off clear-eyed articles for specialist movie magazines.

In Munsil's native Canada, where the play was first seen, its title was Emphysema, after the lung condition that dogged both of these career-smokers. It's a sad irony that Tynan, surely the greatest organism for reacting to live performance that evolution has yet produced, wound up in his final years (after the glory days of The Observer and his influential period as Literary Manager of the National) in the theatrical desert of California, watching (of all things) afternoon television. It was while flicking through a TV guide one Sunday that he noticed Pandora's Box was about to air. Seeing this again sparked off a desire to write a New Yorker profile about Brooks. Hence his visit to her hideaway in Rochester NY, where she lived, now a thin arthritis-ridden septuagenarian, partly funded by payments from a former lover, William Paley, the founder of CBS.

The British premiÿre, which opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse tonight, stars Peter Eyre as Tynan and Thelma Barlow as the 70-odd-year-old Brooks. I met up with them for lunch in Leeds to talk about the two late luminaries they are depicting. They are very good casting. Peter Eyre not only has a distinct look of Tynan, the effete dandy, but also knew him as a friend - though the high-born Eyre is very much to the manner born, whereas Tynan was to the manner made, his own dazzling fabrication. The sublime Thelma Barlow, whose Mavis Riley on 25 years of Coronation Street is one of the greatest comic creations of the television era, is actually not at all like Mavis in "real life". Her Corrie character never got calmer than flustered agony on the stress scale, whereas Ms Barlow radiates a wry wisdom and humorous realism. And besides, she knows what it is like to be icon.

In the play, Brooks is narked that Tynan seems to be more interested in her as the fictional Lulu (a third figure in the piece who has some fantasy sequences with the critic). Given that I can hardly restrain myself from grabbing a flower from the vase, clamping it between my teeth and hurling myself at Barlow's feet, I'm aware that this actress, too, must get cheesed off with people who treat her as though she were Mavis. But my devotion to Mavis is turning by the minute into an infatuation with Thelma, who laughs off the idea that her fans are as pervy as Brooks's were - "although," she adds with a tantalising smile, "some of them take the whole thing very seriously indeed".

It's a pretty odd business for a critic to break bread with a couple of actors in order to talk about another critic - particularly as any reviewer gossiping about Tynan feels like a small-time gigolo indulging in tittle-tattle about Casanova.

Eyre pours out interesting first-hand perceptions of Tynan, such as that he (Tynan) always had to have a theory about everything, including sex. This leads me to liken him to D H Lawrence and to ask whether the great theatre critic, deviser of Oh! Calcutta! and keen aficionado of spanking, was another sex-in-the-head merchant. This leads, in turn, to Eyre saying that Tynan was a very unphysical individual and to speculate, carefully not looking at me, as to whether bodily maladjustment is a common characteristic of male critics. To which the only response is: darling, on press night, the stalls are like Lourdes.

Smoking With Lulu progresses as a sort of suite of artfully contrived contrasts and comparisons of Tynan and Brooks, whose method with men was to love 'em and dump 'em because it's a rare man who can cope with a beauty twice as intelligent as he is.

If Eyre and Barlow had to bequeath the qualities of either of these people to a child, whose would they choose? Barlow is quicker to make up her mind. "Oh, Louise Brooks's, definitely." And why? "I think she harmed fewer people." Eyre agrees but hearteningly adds that all of the critic's three children have turned out well. Tynan, whose stammer would surely have balked at that awful word "parenting", must have been a dab hand at giving his kids "quality time".

It was not the thought of Tynan's ghost out there in fifth-row centre scribbling damning notes about his impersonation that gave Eyre pause about accepting the part, but worry over what the children would think. But apparently they have given the project their blessing, glad that their father, most of whose work is shamefully out of print, is getting some attention again. So here's a thought for a publisher. Why not put out a volume that combines Tynan's great profile of Brooks with a selection from the writings of both of them? It could be called "Ken and Louise" - a title that might cause quite a squabble over top billing up in Celebrity Heaven.

* 'Smoking With Lulu' is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (0113 213 7272)

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