It has only been a year since audiences first fell head over heels for I Loved Lucy and now the show’s back, a little reworked, in a bigger theatre and with more money thrown at the set, but still with its star, Sandra Dickinson, shining radiantly behind oversized glasses and titian wig.
Lee Tannen’s funny, heartwarming and affectionate story of the decade he spent as best friend and confidente of global icon, Lucille Ball, gives Dickinson the role of her career and she dazzles.
Her performance has grown in confidence since I last saw it, making its shaky debut at London’s tiny Jermyn Street Theatre.
Now she’s at the Arts Theatre, at the heart of the West End, with an evocative, chat show-style set that spells out her name ‘Lucy’ in giant letters, and it is clear that she is loving this role.
Hell, she is Lucille Ball, complete with knockout vermillion lipstick, her own leisurewear line and a raucous, infectionate laugh, created from too many cigarettes and whiskey.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again. This is a tour-de-force performance from Dickinson who inhabits the heart and soul of a woman, once the most famous TV star on the planet, who now lives in terror of old age, loneliness and obscurity.
I think everyone was taken by surprise at how audiences reacted to this endearing two hander. Many booked for encore performances, enthralled at watching this nostalgic and remarkable story that was so beautifully acted.
It is hard to imagine just how famous comedienne, model, actress and studio boss Lucille Ball was in her heyday.
There’s a line in the show where Lucy reveals that she was known by 99 per cent of the US population. She was only second to God in popularity.
The star struggled through an apprenticeship of awful B movies before finding fame in the 1950s and ’60s on the small screen with her I Love Lucy show. The series is, in all probability, even now, entertaining a new generation of fans via YouTube or cable TV.
Her success, she says is down to the great love of her life, Desi Arnaz, but his drinking and womanising condemned their marriage and divorce followed.
Tannen’s autobiographical play, takes up the story in the final years of the icon’s life. This young Jewish gay writer from the Bronx, played on stage by Broadway actor Matthew Scott, had grown up watching re-runs of Lucy’s show and was a huge fan.
So he was ecstatic to learn that a distant relative, comedian Gary Morton, was marrying the star and he orchestrated a meeting.
It didn’t go well with the young boy delirious with a fever and struck dumb with nerves.
But they met again years later and the pair, him now 34 and the star aged 73, struck up an unlikely friendship with Lee called upon to play marathon backgammon sessions with the actress in lieu of her absentee husband.
She regales Tannen with stories of old Hollywood. Motor bike rides with Clark Gable, her clashes with the incomparable Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (“What a bitch!”), of phone calls from the eccentric Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minelli and more.
But in-between the laughter and wisecracks, the anecdotes and outings with her new best friend, there are moments of profound sadness and times when their relationship is sorely tested.
Tannen’s play is honest and revelatory, showing the fights as well as the making up. Scott is assured and animated, talking directly to the audience about his involvement with Lucy as well as acting out scenes with Dickinson.
But, like the celebrated actress she portrays, it’s the screwball redhead that steals the limelight. When she finally removes the glasses we get to see an actress at the top of her game, her eyes filled with fear about the future or flashing with fun and rebellion.
“Jesus, what a dame!” exclaims Tannen. It is an exceptional performance about an unforgettable and much loved leading lady.
I Loved Lucy runs at the Arts Theatre until September 2.
I Loved Lucy
Sandra Dickinson gives a career best turn as much loved TV icon Lucille Ball in this reprise of Lee Tannen’s warm & witty autobiographical play, I Loved Lucy.