As a subject for drama, Mae West has many obvious attractions, but the most important – drama itself – would seem to be lacking. The biography's standard focus is the tension between the private and the public figure but, though West left as indelible a mark on cinema history as Mickey Mouse, she seemed to have no more of a private persona than he did, much less an inner life. Claudia Shear doesn't entirely overcome this problem, but her clever, saucy play is full of entertainment and surprise.
Wisely, Shear spends little time on West's films of the 1930s, concentrating instead on the lesser-known years, when she toured in Vaudeville or wrote Broadway plays, in which she starred, with such fetching titles as Sex. One of the funniest scenes in Dirty Blonde shows West learning from an arty director in an opera cape how to slow down her delivery from the brisk, brash tempo of the two-a-day to the drawling insolence that became her trademark.
Much later, in her spooky Hollywood home, she tells an old admirer to go down to the corner ("What's at the corner?" "You") so that she can make a pass at a terrified 17-year-old fan. West isn't bothered by the boy's refusal; indeed, a favour he does her has a startling result: "She was smiling. For a second she almost looked like a real person."
Real feelings are taken care of by two people Shear has invented – the fan, Charlie, now middle aged, and Jo, who, because of their interest in West, meet, become friends, do unexpected things, and come to relax and accept themselves. Yes, it sounds ghastly, but these present-day scenes are funny too, and provide not merely the reality but the mundanity needed to set off the outrageous heroine – they are interleaved with scenes from West's life, in smooth transitions that are nicely pointed by James Lapine's snappy production. But this device never loses its contrived feeling, or the two characters their sentimentality and banality (Charlie becomes kinky, but not more interesting).
The glimpses of West, though, are well imagined. Shear profitably lets minor characters, less articulate and forceful than West, talk about her, such as the shy boxer who recalls her visiting his gym and feeling the men's muscles – "She had a definite effect on you" – and then saying: "I'll see you later," while looking below his belt. Shear also keeps the atmosphere that of a play rather than an impersonation by saving West's famous wisecracks for a compilation just before the curtain. A player piano that occasionally bursts into ghostly old-time tunes makes a good counterpart to West's own mechanical jollity.
Shear, who also plays Jo, is a bit difficult to accept as Mae West – her jaw is much longer than West's, her mouth much bigger and too often wide open, and most of the sand in her hourglass figure has reached the bottom. But she acts and sings with great verve, and is quite convincing, as well as touching, as the aged West, determined to be irresistible if it kills her. Kevin Chamberlain is a sweet Charlie, but best of all is the sprightly Bob Stillman, playing various lechers and loafers in the life of this mad, magnificent star.
To 3 August (0113 2137700)
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