When the British think of entertainer Lucille Ball we remember the fire engine red hair, the scatty housewife, the consummate comedienne and star of her own kitchen sink drama, I Love Lucy.
Like Lee Tannen I grew up watching, laughing, and adoring, re-runs of I Love Lucy but Lee was fortunate enough, through a convoluted and complicated twist of fate, to find himself, through marriage, related to the legend.
The copywriter spent nearly a decade as Lucy’s best friend and backgammon opponent. Hell, he became her constant companion, flitting between his home in New York and her mansion in Beverly Hills. He grew closer to her, according to him, than her own husband and kids.
Tannen’s reminiscences were channelled into a two-handed stage play, I Loved Lucy, and now this warm-hearted, witty and wonderfully acted comedy has opened in London at the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre.
Anglicised American actress Sandra Dickinson, who in the distant past, appeared on TV as a ditsy blonde with a high-pitched squeaky voice, now sounds like she’s worked her way through four packs a day to achieve the deep, raucous, throaty voice of Ms Ball. She gives a sublime, tour de force performance.
Lucy regularly throws her head back and roars with laughter while delivering withering verdicts on her peers. Joan Crawford: “What a Bitch!” Henry Fonda: “A womaniser and a drunk!” Ann Miller: “A nut job!” Clark Gable:”If his pecker had been any smaller they’d have called him the Queen of Hollywood!!”
It’s a fabulous performance that is equally matched by Matthew Bunn as the gay, Jewish, waspish, adoring Tannen.
But all the time you have to remember that this is Tannen’s memories of his relationship with Lucy and, without her to corroborate, it may be wildly exaggerated. There are moments when it comes across as self-indulgent, sycophantic and improbable. Frequently it throws up more questions than it answers.
But as an entertainment it kept me enthralled and laughing throughout. Bunn/Tannen’s monologues let us in on a gilded life that we can only imagine.
This isn’t the story of the Queen of Comedy, whose TV programmes (made with the love of her life, Desi Arnez) made her a household name throughout the entire planet. It’s a poignant, privilaged intrusion into the final years of an icon’s remarkable life. Failing health, lonely, rich, terrified of the ageing process – and bored – she spends her days at home and her nights playing hours of backgammon. It’s a terribly sad finale to a glittering life.
She slops around her mansion (Jack Benny is the next-door neighbour) in leisurewear with a chiffon scarf tied at her neck, the red hair cut short and bouffanted, and her trademark scarlet lipstick always in place. We don’t see it but the implication is that she lives on cigarettes and booze.
Lucy has gone from being one of the most powerful women in television (her production company, formed with Desi Arnez, created some of prime time TV’s most memorable shows) to a star that is forgotten by TV execs but still adored by her fans.
Beautifully played, I Loved Lucy is funny and engaging and, as Tannen frequently remarks, it often feels like you’re in a re-run of an episode from her show. A love letter penned by her number one fan.
Sandra Dickinson – What a Dame!
I Loved Lucy runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until February 27.
I Loved Lucy
Lee Tannen’s witty, warm-hearted, affectionate two hander, I Loved Lucy, is a love letter from a man who spent a decade as the constant companion of a Hollywood legend that he adored, Lucille Ball.