The story is set in the 1970s in a theatre in Paris where Marlene (Sian Phillips) is about to perform a cabaret act. We witness the trauma she is having as she has stage fright before going on stage and the rituals she has to do before each performance. She frantically cleans her own dressing room and the stage! A perfectionist and professional she organises the lighting to make sure it shows her in the best light when she is stage. She even arranges for the ushers to bring on flowers in a particular way at the end of her performance, and telling them to put the flowers in water after the show because they have to be used again the next day!
Marlene is joined in her dressing room by her assistant, Vivian Hoffman (Lou Gish) a lesbian who dearly loves Marlene and so puts up with her strange antics and mannerism s . She is also joined by another assistant ‘Mutti’, who has been with Marlene for many years. ‘Mutti’ is an old woman who doesn’t say anything on stage during the entire show, she just uses facial expressions which are quite touching at times, particularly when Marlene is having a panic attack. ‘Mutti’ is played by Billy Mathias, who at the age of 78 is making her professional stage debut! She is also the mother of the director, Sean Mathias.
The story doesn’t tell you much about Marlene, it only touches the surface, which results in the first act being a little shallow and disappointing. However, after the interval the play gets a lot better and then in the last half hour we a treated to a cabaret performance with all the favourite Dietrich songs which are performed sensationally by Sian Phillips.
The play was written specifically for Sian Phillips, and you can see why. She looks, sounds and feels like the real Marlene Dietrich which makes the last half hour a dream come true for many Marlene fans.
Most critics like the show but commented like me on the lack of story. BILL HAGERTY in THE NEWS OF THE WORLD review says “ Marlene is a remarkable experience even if, ..the text is as thin as Rizla”. THE SUNDAY TIMES says “ It is not a play: it is a show. this is not theatre: this is show business. The writing is perky but slack.” NICK CURTIS in the EVENING STANDARD says “The lines may be sardonically funny, but Marlene merely recycles old myths about showbiz glamour.”
The critics are also in the same mind as me when it comes to Sean Phillips performance. “ Phillips turns in a feisty, imperious performance...”(Evening Standard), “ Sian Phillips characterisation is uncannily accurate”.(News Of The World), “Sian Phillips impersonation is perfect. “ (Sunday Times), “...gives the kind of performance which will surely win her awards at the end of the year.”(Peter Hepple - The Stage).
This musical play is a must for fans of Marlene, and people who like her type of music. If you are not a great fan of Marlene then this show is not for you.