THEATRE / Hardly heaven: Paul Taylor on I'm No Angel, in Southampton

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The Independent Culture
When Mae West posed as the statue of Liberty, the drama critic George Jean Nathan redubbed her the Statue of Libido. Trying to picture the monumental sexpot in a church is about as easy, you'd have thought, as imagining Wittgenstein at the Las Vegas gaming tables. Lynda Baron's Mae makes regular trips to a chapel, though, in I'm No Angel, a new play by Ayshe Raif which focuses on the 55-year-old star during her six-months stay in London ('Say, who is this Big Ben? I'd like ta meet him.') in 1948.

Though she doesn't exactly take off her cycle clips in awkward reverence (being always dressed in a way that would upstage the resurrection), it's clear that Mae discovers a hunger in herself to be more serious, or at least less wisecrackingly flip. To a nun with doubts (Philippa Urquhart), she reveals that she is still in thrall to her beloved dead mother, a woman whose influence and strong warnings against marriage may, it's implied, be the reason for the star's 'find 'm, fool 'm, and forget 'm' promiscuity. In clunkily written colloquia with the nun, not made any better by the lack of any real intimacy in the acting, Mae is urged to locate 'the little girl, the little who never was' inside.

'Look, dearie, I don't love anybody but Mae West,' she pouts to Vincent (Paul McNeilly), the 18-year-old boxer she's been having a fling with. But the advantages and drawbacks of loving only yourself aren't brought into any revealing relation by the play, nor is the youth's victim / exploiter ambiguity well enough defined. As for her vulnerability to blackmail over this cradle-snatching, the star seems, confusingly, to be in two minds. She tells the nun that the audiences she makes feel comfortable about sex will take fright at an actual scandal, but then successfully calls Vincent's bluff by claiming the reverse: 'Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.' Mae and her manager board ship bound for the United States before any of these issues can be properly resolved.

Miss Baron does a passable imitation of this imitated-to-death star, but seems to find the familiar mannerisms (the hand on hip, the self-pampering hair-pat, the suggestive drawl) an end in themselves rather than a starting point. Patrick Sandford's production is punctuated by her raunchy rendering of a string of West's hits, the mere titles of which ('I Wonder Where my Easy Rider's Gone'; 'A Guy what Takes his Time' etc) indicate that the love they celebrate is very far from platonic. She was still posing with loin-clothed muscle men in her late 60s and cropped up on screen, marrying Timothy Dalton when she was 84. I'm No Angel may end with her flanked by half-clad hunks but, beyond telling us that she was on a power trip, it doesn't really flesh out the compulsions that trapped her as the icon of camp sex queenliness for a further quarter of a century.

Nuffield Theatre (0703-671771)