Is there anything more depressing, theatrically speaking, than a missed opportunity? Missing out on seeing a great performer in a stand-out, career defining performance? Missing a chance to tell a story in the best possible way? Missing out on seeing the very best version of something or someone’s interpretation of it? Missing out on style and wit in favour of blandness? Missing out on vitality and viciousness when it should be there? Missing out on laughter when the subject is funny, at least in part?

These thoughts started clamouring for attention at interval of I Loved Lucy, a play by Lee Tannen now running at the Jermyn Street Theatre in a production directed by Anthony Biggs. The play is an adaptation of sorts of Tannen’s book about his relationship with Lucille Ball, fondly regarded as the greatest television comedienne of all time.

In the programme, Tannen says:

Welcome to I Loved Lucy. A play drawn solely from memory – a remembrance of a friendship and of a time in my life spent with a remarkable woman named Lucille Ball at the end of hers. It’s a loving and candid portrait of a woman with prodigious gifts and complexities. A valentine to my very own “Auntie Mame”.

The news for Tannen is simple: I Loved Lucy is not a portrait, candid or otherwise, of Lucille Ball. Indeed, one learns very little about Ball’s true motives, feelings, thoughts, loves, regrets and joys.

No. This is a play about a narcissistic, name-dropping, namby-pamby nobody vampire who attached himself to Ball in her later years and still dines out on her name and their friendship. It’s a play about Tannen.

That might not be the intention, but it most certainly is the result of Tannen’s writing here. The Tannen character tells the tale, occupies prime position, and suffers almost third degree burns from basking in Ball’s considerable lustre. Lucille Ball is the secondary character, the comic relief, the supporting character role.

Once that is understood, I Loved Lucy makes a great deal of sense. The programme suggests that Tannen himself does not understand and it is uncertain whether Biggs does, although his carefully chosen words in the programme and his sure handle on the material suggests he certainly does.

The play reveals very little about Ball; it reveals a deal about Tannen. Perhaps the most acute passage occurs in the second Act, when the Tannen character compares himself and Ball to Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and Joe Gilles. This is less about Ball’s age and presumed mental instability and more about Tannen seeing himself as William Holden (who played Gilles in the iconic film) – impossibly handsome, mysterious and surrounded by glamour that only Norma Ball can provide.

There are many other signs, but perhaps the most potent occurs at the end of Act One. Tannen behaves selfishly towards Ball and she snaps, yelling at him to get out and terminating their friendship. It’s genuinely startling to watch. The opening of Act Two sees Tannen dithering, playing the “woe is me” card right along with the “how can I get back in her life” card. The audience is meant to side with Tannen; Ball is painted as the unreasonable tantrum thrower.

As the second Act progresses, the true nature of the play becomes clearer. It doesn’t end with Ball’s death, but meanders on, giving you further insight into the sad life of the deluded vampire kept away from her in her final hours and resentful he hasn’t been paid the money he claims Ball owed him. A surreal fantasy exchange between Tannen and the departed Ball can only be about Tannen; after all, Ball is dating Desi Arnez Jnr again – in heaven.

Once you understand that this play is not a loving Valentine to Lucille Ball, it becomes altogether more interesting. In great part, the play has nothing to say about Ball herself; so little is gleaned about her relationships with other people, her husbands and children particularly. But it has a great deal to say about fame, fans, “friendship”, and the desperation that only the once-very-famous can know.

It also seems, whether by design or not, again, to be a meditation on that most peculiar, yet often endearing, relationship: the one between the wide-eyed homosexual and the past-her-prime Diva. Admittedly, these relationships usually centre on women famous for musical theatre and that was not Ball. She did, however, star on Broadway and she played the title role in the miss-rather-than-hit film of Mame. Despite what his character says in the play, the impression Tannen gives about these sorts of relationships is not positive: Tannen’s own love life plays a low-key role in his life where Lucy comes first. It is clearly unhealthy obsession rather than mutual respect and love.

Biggs certainly has no trouble in opening this particular tin of sardines and, especially in the second Act, gets to grips with the gritty examination of desperation and loneliness that I Loved Lucy is at its best at illuminating. The first Act feels very long and haphazard, but that is about the writing really. It is not until the fight at the Act One curtain that the steel is drawn.

Sandra Dickinson certainly seems to understand what is going on. She makes no attempt to play the real Lucille Ball. Wisely, she plays Tannen’s imagined version of Ball, relying upon hairstyles, glasses, a deliciously raspy throat and odd clothes to create a doppelgänger of the great woman. There is method in her manner. This way, she has no obligation to be as funny as Ball is remembered as being (something which is impossible given the script) but she can find humour and mine it her own way. Which she does – with great aplomb.

This is a terrific and finely thought through performance from Dickinson, herself a great comedienne.

The old adage about comedy being harder to pull off than tragedy has never seemed clearer than here. Dickinson has no difficulty bringing out the pathos and unbearable sorrow of Ball’s final years, and she reveals herself as a very capable dramatic actor with excellent instincts. Her bitter recollection of being persuaded to turn down The Golden Girls pre-empts her humiliation over the fiasco that is Life With Lucy. Her eyes betray her real pain even as her lips smile or her hand waves away any need for consolation.

Dickinson is outstanding in every way. Seeing her is worth the price of admission alone.

Playing Tannen is a youthful, perhaps too youthful, Matthew Bunn. If he was slightly older, there would be something inherently repugnant about him. But Bunn’s bright eyes and smooth skin belie Tannen’s less admirable traits.

Still, Bunn portrays him as relentlessly unctuous and tiresomely self-important, precocious and manipulative, and that does seem to be the core of the character. There were times when one had to suppress an overwhelming urge to punch Tannen in the face; perhaps there is no greater accolade for Bunn’s performance than that. But it is an uneven performance and a soupçon of more specific malice would not have gone amiss.

In the end, though, the trouble here is with the writer. He appears to have written one play while ostensibly writing another. Missed opportunities. For a play properly about Lucille Ball, starring Dickinson, would really be something.

Perhaps a playwright not so closely involved in the material could create from Tannen’s memoirs a stylish and witty play that was revelatory about the decline and decline of Lucille Ball and the part Tannen truly played in those final years. That would be a play Dickinson could make a sensation.

 

Three stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.