Lucille Ball, the sitcom duchess of the 50’s was known for her excellence in physical comedy, her ability to make the implausible seem possible and as the scatter brained wannabe in her and her husband’s sitcom, ‘I Love Lucy’. But what was she really like? Although one of the American sweethearts during the golden age of Hollywood, what happened in her later life (not being one of those plagued by drink and drug abuse) is not well known. Lee Tannen’s ‘I Loved Lucy’, playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, gives us an insight into what the funniest woman in the world was really like after the camera stopped rolling.
The true story revolves around a young Lee Tannen’s experience and friendship with an older Lucille Ball. ‘Lee’ (Stefan Menaul), a small jewish boy with an unhealthy obsession becomes a distant relative to the comedienne of the century ‘Lucy Ball’ (Sandra Dickinson). Through orchestrated phone calls and “chance happenings” the pair form a strong friendship and become confidantes to one another. Throughout the years we get a glimpse of the everyday, terrible cook, back gammon obsessed ‘Lucy’ the world doesn’t know. But the question I was asking was do I really want to?
Sandra Dickinson, was elegant and believable as the aged star. There was a progression of age throughout the piece that was so subtle and beautiful to watch as she went from the bouncy, upbeat woman we all knew, to the bossy pensioner lacking in confidence.
The play as a whole, however, didn’t hold me to my seat at all and for the entire evening I felt like I was on the outside of a joke looking in. I found the character of ‘Lee Tannen’ to be quite unlikeable. Whether this was down to the writing or Stefan Menial’s portrayal, I’m not sure. The man became best friends with a celebrity because she was a celebrity. I couldn’t see any other reason the pair would be friends other than so he could name drop, and the whole thing became a bit like a stalkers success story.
I can’t say my experience of the play was enriched by the performance Stefan Menaul gave. He played multiple characters throughout the play and every one of them were completely two dimensional, and at points bordered on the offensive. Let’s call it Adam Sandler acting: Take a loud over the top character and plaster them with a dodgy accent. Voilà! Mr Sandler would probably have a wig and a makeover to give the illusion of a transformation, Mr Menaul had only himself. There was a large void of reality surrounding every character he played (especially when paired with Dickinson), and sadly when it came to some quite poignant moments he had already lost me.
Anthony Biggs’ direction was simple and effective. He utilised the space well and wasn’t afraid of silence and stillness which added to the piece what the writing should have provided. There was also plenty to look at in the wonderful set on offer. A dramatic design, which teamed with the lighting, gave an air of Hollywood glitz and glamour from the word go!
Overall the piece really wasn’t for me. It’s a love letter to Lucille Ball from one of her best friends. But it simply didn’t make for an interesting watch, and I gained almost nothing from the experience other than questioning if Stannen’s account is one hundred percent true. I can’t decide if fans of the actress will love or loathe it, as it wasn’t the person we all know. The ageless queen of quirk that will shine through the television screen for years to come was not present in this production, but I’m wondering if that’s the selling point of this show? One thing is for sure, although I do love Lucy, I certainly didn’t love this.
Reviewed by Jimmy Richards
Photo: Scott Rylander