She was dubbed the Statue of Libido. In 1926, she wrote a play cryptically entitled Sex. Fifty-two years later, she was still posing as an irresistible siren in a movie called Sextette, except that by then she had to be propped up and carted round by musclemen in loincloths. She was "the debutante who came out in 1910 and hasn't been home since'' and that's how Mae West kept it right to the decrepit end. Huge self-deception or dogged courage - or a bit of both?
And now the hourglass-shaped icon is the focus of Dirty Blonde, a delightful, funny and touching entertainment, written by and starring Claudia Shear. The piece mercifully steers clear of the straightforward bio-play treatment. Instead, it concerns itself as much with the effect of the Mae West myth on her fans as with the one-liner-dispensing diva herself. With a cast of three, James Lapine's warmly engaging production interlaces two complementary strands. In the first, we see our heroine (played by Shear) on the vaudeville circuit, gradually picking up the tricks that will turn her into the undying legend of Diamond Lil. She learns how to slow down her delivery, how to move like a truck driver in a frock, how to roll her eyes and pat those peroxide waves. In short, how to behave like a woman imitating a man in drag.
West was a miracle of self-construction - the kind of star who gives hope to people who long to reinvent themselves. Step up to the stage Charlie and Jo. Beautifully played by Kevin Chamberlin, Charlie is a shy, fat, balding film archivist while Jo is a mostly resting actress who has certain qualities reminiscent of West - she hails from Brooklyn, she's far from sylph-like and she has a nice line in sassy backchat. She just doesn't have West's nerve, originality, money, fame or stardom. This pair meet at the grave of their idol and you brace yourself for some clichéd yarn about two lonely people (one gay, one straight) who reach out to each other because of their common identification with a legend.
In fact, the show endearingly defies expectation. Charlie may be a clandestine transvestite but he's also a closet heterosexual and it's he who eventually has to take the initiative. Then again, while they both love West, they are under no illusions about the human cost of her round-the-clock routine.
Greatly energised by the versatility of the third performer, Bob Stillman, this is a show where romance is clinched by a kiss between a couple who are both dragged up to the nines. Come up and see it some time.
Booking to 28 August
(0870 060 6623)
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