The Vaults, Waterloo, 28 January 2018
There’s always something of a danger that one-man drag shows of iconic female stars become an exercise in self-indulgence, but whatever fears one may have had are washed away immediately by Peter Groom’s portrayal of Marlene Dietrich at The Vaults Festival (Jan 24-28). It’s well-written, delivered with panache and has a serious moral core.
The Vaults performing space is a rabbit warren of tunnels and cellars under Waterloo Station. Water drips down mildewed brick walls. Each small theatre could be an air-raid shelter, c.1941. So, it’s a long way from the glitz of a Las Vegas casino, in which Dietrich – Natural Duty supposedly begins. But the incongruity is soon forgotten as Groom glides through the house to the tiny stage in a shimmering sheer sequined gown, in the style of the dress that caused such a sensation when Dietrich began her feted cabaret shows at The Sahara Hotel in 1953.
Groom, who created the show, which is also co-written by Oliver Gully, holds attention from that moment and doesn’t let it go for a second in the next 60 minutes. About to begin her first song, Dietrich is interrupted by an inquisitive journalist from the back of the house asking about her career. After initial demurs, the screen icon is led down memory lane to recall her early life, the career-defining role as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) and her partnership with legendary director Joseph Sternberg in the Hollywood of the 1930s.
Prompted by further questions, which are also first brusquely brushed aside, Dietrich gradually reveals more of her life story, punctuated by performances of songs most closely associated with her – Lola, Boys in the Backroom, Lili Marlene and, of course, Falling in Love Again, which concludes the show.
It’s an old device, and doesn’t win any points for originality, but it still works. What Dietrich – Natural Duty doesn’t try and do is be a whistle-stop soup to nuts account of Dietrich’s life and career. There is no mention of her only husband Rudolf Sieber, whom she married in 1923, her only daughter and precious little of her sister with whom she was permanently estranged after the war. There’s nothing about her many affairs with both women and a succession of Hollywood leading men, including Gary Cooper, John Gilbert and, bizarrely, John Wayne. One can’t imagine a great deal of pillow chat there.
There’s very little about her private life at all, apart from her close relationship with her mother in whose grave in Berlin she was buried in 1992. Nor is there much detail on those movies she made with Sternberg. But that’s fine. Groom and Gully have realised that this isn’t a paint-by-numbers biopic, and it’s a 60 minute show. So the bulk of the material concerns Marlene’s war work. And there’s no need to fictionalize it as the record shows it was deeply impressive.
Courted by Goebbels, who dreamed of an affair with her, to return to Germany and make proper Aryan films, Dietrich turned her back on what her country had become and took American citizenship in 1937. She started a fund with Billy Wilder for German dissidents and Jews in flight and donated her entire fee from Knight Without Armor to the same cause.
She toured the country drumming up support for war bonds, which, as Dietrich says in this show, would finance the making of bombers that would kill Germans. She entertained the troops in two extensive tours to Italy, Algeria, France and went back to her native land with Patton in 1945. She was often closer to the front line than Eisenhower, and said she courted danger "aus Anstand"—"out of decency".
Captain Dietrich walked the walk, and from this derived her real sense of purpose on this planet. She was transfigured by her war work and considered it her proudest achievement – far more so than any silly films she’d been in.
This forms the moral core of Groom’s show, with the obvious conflict and pain it at the same time occasioned. The Germany she saw in 1945 was much changed; she didn’t know if her mother was alive or dead. What came before or after these events was of little consequence in the great scheme of things and it feels dead right that this is the beating heart of Dietrich – Natural Duty.
It’s also arrestingly performed. Groom, with his high cheek bones and limpid eyes framed by enormous lashes, commands the stage and is the essence of Dietrich. The songs are simply and affectingly performed. Dietrich had a limited range, but her singing had limitless feeling.
Particularly striking is the rendition of Pete Seegers' “Where have all the flowers gone?”, which Dietrich added to her cabaret repertoire in the early 1960s. In Groom’s hands, it’s a piercing anti-war lament, the memories of the broken bodies of the young GIs Dietrich witnessed trembling in every line, tears glistening in her eyes. Apart from one overly declamatory lyric, it’s performed with thrilling restraint, the audience in wrapt silence.
It’s a very simple show, in fact, simply directed by Bethany Pitts. Groom arrives on stage, gets interrupted, talks about her life, sings songs and sits down from time to time. But this is all it needs, and, moreover, all that is possible in this limited space. Groom also smokes innumerable cigarettes, which is great to see and entirely true to the character and period. The fact that the theatre was entirely free of large notices warning supposedly fearful audiences of the dangers of imminent cigarette smoking was also unusual and entirely refreshing.
It’s a 60 minute show, and for a lot of plays that feels quite long enough. In this case, one could see more. Or could, if one was not in such discomfort by this stage. One doesn’t expect Odeon-style reclining bucket seats at The Vaults, but the narrow high-backed wooden trestles provided in this space are so distressing that they might have been considered a bit brutal in a Victorian reformatory. It’s about the only caveat for this illuminating and moving night at the theatre.