THEATRE Tallulah! Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
When it came to making sure she was the centre of attraction, there was little - at any stage of her life - that Tallulah Bankhead would not do. She'd cartwheel knickerless through a hotel lobby ("I was a natural blonde and I wanted to prove it"); she'd pee in front of Eleanor Roosevelt; she'd even pick a public fight with Carmen Miranda, despite the latter's garish advantages in the ammunition department.

The alcoholic bisexual actress, wit and gay icon doesn't have to compete for the spotlight in Sandra Ryan Heyward's one-woman play, Tallulah!. Brought to life in a wonderfully ballsy performance by Hollywood star Kathleen Turner, la Bankhead bares her soul and her scrapbook to us at her home in Bedford Village, New York, in the nervous run-up to and hung- over aftermath of a big fund-raising lunch for President Truman.

She's in a bit of a tizz because she's just had Marlon Brando sacked from a production of The Eagle Has Two Heads and we wait for her to wake up to the fact that this is not because he scratches his testicles on- stage but because he's young, beautiful and astonishingly talented and beats her hollow at her own attention-hogging game. Meanwhile, she knocks back a drink or 10 (Bollinger, Jim Beam), takes incessant phone calls ("Noel, dahling! I'm absolutely famished to see you!"), gives us the lowdown on her life and "double-gaited" love ("Sex is simply the business of the three people involved...") and pins the blame for her exhibitionist immaturity on her father (the Speaker in the House of Representatives) who, widowed at her birth, always withheld his approval.

Tallulah comes across as a woman it would be wonderful to encounter in, say, 10-minute doses (she was named after a waterfall, though in terms of sheer flow, Niagara might have been nearer the mark). Ms Turner, by contrast, you feel you could take in very protracted draughts. She brings a terrific vitality and a classy, husky-voiced raunchiness to the part - creating the witty aura of a well-bred broad who would be game for anything. Her performance also gives us a subtler indication of Bankhead's underlying self-hatred than the script does.

"At what point did I become a joke?" asks Tallulah in the second half, where we get some plonking reflections on the conflict between being a personality and being a true artist. "I'm no artist - and it's a relief to say so," she eventually admits, and after professing initial outrage that her name has been given to a brand of shampoo, she's soon taking an illicitly flattered pleasure in listening to the irritating jingle for it on the radio.

As with Marlene and that other drag fest, Masterclass, the proceedings plumb some delicious depths; at one point, for example, Tallulah sings "Bye Bye Blackbird" down the phone to Tennessee Williams - a case of one distraught Southern queen soothing another. "You call me any god-awful hour of the day or night," she soulfully begs him. "You know I never sleep." Empathy, the programme tells us, was one of Tallulah's strongest points. Apparently, she used to ring up a late-night radio show in New York City called Happiness Exchange and join in conversations with the heartbroken and the destitute. For the unfortunate (one of whom she sends a precious fur coat), it must have been an experience akin to ringing the Samaritans and finding you'd been put through to Bette Davis. There's a radio play in there somewhere.

To 12 July. Booking: 01243 781312

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