Lloyd Evans

Partners in crime | 29 November 2018

Plus: a portrait of Marlene Dietrich at Wilton’s Music Hall that might have been better if a woman had had a hand in the script

Partners in crime | 29 November 2018
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Ambassadors Theatre, until 5 January 2019

Dietrich: Natural Duty

Wilton’s Music Hall

I know nothing about Patricia Highsmith. The acclaimed American author wrote the kind of Sunday-night crime thrillers that put me to sleep. Her best-known creation, the suave psychopath Thomas Ripley, has spawned a number of films that I’ve carefully avoided. But ignorance is an ideal starting point for Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith, a brilliantly nasty comedy that features Highsmith in 1995 when she was past her artistic best. What a piece of work. A foul-mouthed, booze-soaked, chain-smoking misanthrope squatting in a glass-fronted hermitage in the mountains with nothing but a typewriter, a whisky bottle and an Alpine panorama for company. (Actually, it sounds quite tempting, put like that.)

Her solitude is broken by a New York yuppie, Edward, on a mission from her publisher to secure a final instalment in the Ripley series. Edward whops the contract down on the table. Highsmith orders him out. But he stands his ground. We learn that he’s not the first emissary to assail the dragon in her lair. Highsmith evicted a previous applicant at knifepoint. But Edward charms her with gifts of Campbell’s soup and peanut butter and she grudgingly allows him to stay. Then, a bombshell. She’s suffering from writer’s block. The storyline for the Ripley novel is complete but she lacks a final chapter. They make a deal. Highsmith will sign the contract if Edward can devise an ingenious, original and plausible murder to end the book.

The show then morphs into an oddball flat-share comedy. Highsmith serves her guest a cooked breakfast while tabulating the merits of various deadly toxins. Arsenic is her favourite, she says, as Edward picks at his omelette, because it happens to be invisible and odourless. Is she trying to bump off her co-author? Phyllis Logan plays Highsmith as a super-brainy sourpuss whose bilious opinions are tolerable, and even admirable, because they wear no cloak of political acceptability.

The play’s final act involves a series of surreal revelations that barely fit with the original set-up. In fact, I got rather lost towards the end, but I expect Highsmith loyalists will appreciate the last-minute surprises. More plays like this are needed in the West End: intelligent, unfussy, literate and sophisticated but with no special appeal to the clamouring dinner-party mob who attend plays in order to acquire the latest weapons in the social arms race.

Dietrich: Natural Duty is a solo show that did well at Edinburgh and has the potential to tour the UK and beyond. It looks amazing. Dietrich had wide cheekbones, a slender mouth, inscrutable little eyes with hooded lids, and a broad commanding forehead. These particulars are impossible to replicate, of course, and the performer, Peter Groom, has a long, angular face and a gaunt, wary expression. He looks like a trainee librarian, but a superb effort in the make-up department has transformed him into a vision of chic stardom. Wig, slap and frock are perfect.

The script, by Groom and the director Oliver Gully, portrays Marlene as a glum, argumentative brat. An unseen reporter interrupts her first song and she treats him to a haughty put-down. We’re taken at breakneck speed through her journey from Berlin cabaret to America, but we get few insights into her artistic experiences or her social life. She found movie-making a punishing chore. Filming a scene was an uncreative process in which she robotically fulfilled the orders of a tyrannical director. Was there not more to it than that?

She was intimate with many of the 20th century’s biggest names but she’s curiously reluctant to spill the beans. She has a testy interview with Goebbels, who wants her to make films for the Reich. He menacingly recites the address of her mother, living in Berlin, but Marlene dismisses the threat. Goebbels backs down and asks for her autograph. General Patton recruits her as an army entertainer with the honorary title of captain. Dietrich wants a higher rank. ‘Captain!’ barks Patton. That’s as gossipy as it gets. In the spring of 1945 we join Marlene and the American forces as they grind out a bloody path towards Berlin. Meanwhile the commies are approaching from the opposite direction. Somewhere in between sits Marlene’s abandoned mum. Will the Yanks rescue her in time or will the evil Soviets beat them to it and ship her off to a gulag? It would help to know if the old dear is in Berlin’s eastern or western district but this info isn’t given to us. She dies anyway, of uncertain causes, and a recorded voice informs us that she was buried in a coffin made from school desks. This detail grates on Marlene. ‘Kitsch,’ she sneers, petulant to the last.

This is a fair shot at the Dietrich mystery but it might have been better if a woman had had a hand in the script.