THEATRE: She's a drag act

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The Independent Culture
Marlene Lyric Shaftesbury, London

They were demons for hygiene, those screen goddesses. Take Joan Crawford - never happier than when on her knees scouring away. And now in Pam Gems's Marlene, virtually the first thing the teutonic legend does is don a pair of rubber gloves and set to work with a will on her dressing- room floor, using her fur coat as a mat. She also hoovers the place and then sweeps the stage; the only surprise is that she isn't out in the bar during the interval furiously polishing the glasses. You can say what you like about Dietrich and her war record (comforting the troops individually as well as en masse on the grounds that they could then die happy), but, by God, you couldn't fault her surfaces.

And it's on these surfaces that we mostly remain in this sketchy, predictable, lazily assembled, and, to be honest, really rather enjoyable piece which gives us a life-in-the-day-of look at Dietrich in the 1970s as she prepares for and then performs one of her celebrated solo concerts at a Paris theatre. Directed by Sean Mathias, the show is as near to being a one-woman vehicle for the excellent Sian Phillips as is consistent with having a cast of three. The other characters are Mutti (Billy Mathias), an elderly, totally silent dresser, a sort of Madge to Dietrich's Dame Edna, who does next to nothing but pad sorrowfully off when things like masturbation or the death camps are mentioned, and a barely more fleshed-out Vivian Hoffman (Lou Gish), a young woman in a man's suit who is there to show us that Marlene swung every which way.

What everyone is waiting for, of course, is the climactic concert, and when it finally arrives it does not disappoint. The Taj Mahal bathed in moonlight is scarcely less majestic a monument than Phillips's cheekbone- flaunting Dietrich under Mark Johnson's von Sternberg-esque lighting, swathed in that shimmering pounds 15,000 sheath of a frock. The curious thing is that she seems more real as the icon than she did as the woman behind it. Projecting Dietrich's imperious, poised allure and ironic minimalism, Phillips delivers the goods ("Lilli Marlene", a "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" that's like a brilliantly shaded and moving five-act play, etc) in a husky baritone that sounds rather better than the "duck shoot on a saltmarsh in Siberia" to which she likens it. The house is driven wild, but at what precisely? "I don't ask you who you were applauding - the legend, the performer, or me," Dietrich once told an audience. Who Phillips's audience is cheering to the rafters is an even trickier question.

Before this, backstage, we see Marlene the impossible but wonderful superstar; Marlene the touring exile turned on as traitor by her own disgraced compatriots; Marlene the Junker's daughter, who palpitates with nerves but is too proud to take tranquillisers; Marlene the seasoned, shrugging bitch (marvelling that a friend can be on to her sixth husband since "she looks like Joan Crawford after two hours of root-canal work"); and Marlene the perfectionist who stage-manages every moment of her shows, right down to the spontaneous floral tributes. The supposedly serious parts are quite as camp and as cliched as the comic ones. But the public's appetite for entertainments which effectively make drag acts of legendary females can't be overestimated. Watch out for Tallulah (about la Bankhead) at Chichester and the Callas play Masterclass soon to open just up the road from Marlene.

To 21 June. Booking: 0171-494 5045

Paul Taylor