Dietrich – Natural Duty
Wednesday 24 January to Saturday 28 January at 7.45pm
Sunday 28th at 4.45pm
“It is 1942, on the battlefields of North Africa, in a gold sequin gown, Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage to launch her own offensive against the German Reich. For the next three years she would fight the war her way, with an irresistible mix of songs, sequins, sex and sympathy.
An intoxicating mix of theatre, cabaret and drag, this new one-(wo)man show by Peter Groom, created for VAULT Festival 2018, uses music, stories and songs – including Falling in Love Again, Lili Marlene, Where have all the Flowers gone?, Boys in the Backroom, Lola, The Laziest Girl in Town – to reveal a Hollywood icon’s extraordinary commitment to duty.
This real life tale of a legend takes us through the Weimar Republic, the Golden age of Hollywood, the Rise of Hitler, a world on the edge of collapse, and a long journey back to Berlin where it all began.
Born in Berlin in 1901, Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich soon became a Hollywood legend, and the most famous German woman in the world. However, when World War II was declared, she was forced to choose between the country that she loved, and what she knew was right. Renouncing her German citizenship, Dietrich joined the American Army and fought against her homeland in order to free her people from Hitler. With an American smile and Prussian discipline she would entertain GIs in an evening dress, then put on a combat uniform and head to the front.
As our political landscape becomes more polarised this timely story of duty asks questions about our own moral and ethical obligations, and explores how the fight for freedom can take many forms; whether in a sequin gown, combat uniform, or as a man in a wig.”
Review by Martin Bristow, 4 Stars.
From the moment you enter the aptly named “Pit” at The Vaults you find yourself transported to a dank and musty environment which may well hinder a lot of productions, but sets the mood rather well for this foray into the life of Dietrich. LED uplighters highlight the textures of the natural brickwork behind the stage, shadow the damp patches and illuminate the real life drops of water which sporadically drip down the wall of the venue. On a side note I did find myself hoping that the fixtures and cabling have a decent IP rating otherwise someone may well get a nasty shock. Literally.
The stage is set with a slightly non-period microphone centre stage (which you forget about once the performance is in full swing) and a chair and table with and ashtray and some glasses on it Stage Left. Simple and effective.
After a few minutes in the space you settle into the unarguable ambience of a bunker, and once everyone is seated into the less than comfortable pew like wooden benches, the lights dim and Peter Groom (performer and creator) enters from the centre aisle, a spotlight appears on the stage and “Marlene” steps up to the microphone and into the light for the first time.
This is an excellent point in which to note the fabulous costume provided by Costume Designer Kathleen Nellis – which shimmers, glistens, and blinks under the stage lighting, as well as glimmering in the colour provided by the LED Backlights on the upstage bar. If there was a near perfect dress then Kathleen found it! The ensemble is completed by a great wig which has been provided by Wigchapel, and some lovely jewellery.
Peter Groom as Marlene exuded well deserved confidence. He comfortably held the audience and created a vivid and dimensional character. It included a lot of singing to pre-recorded backing tracks which were well balanced by sound designer Kieran Lucas so as not to make the transition from backing track and amplified vocal to spoken word with no amplification jarring. The backing tracks are well executed so as not to be too obvious or distracting – and even support a beautifully timed comic sequence between Marlene and her audition pianist. In an ideal world it would have been preferable to have the sound cues of the dialogue from the journalist coming from the rear of the auditorium, but perhaps this was due to a technical limitation of the festival rather than an omission.
The lighting rig provided was used well throughout with the aforementioned coloured backlight from the LED’s on the upstage bar helping provide mood and a sense of space, however I was surprised the uplighters which helped create such texture pre and post show weren’t utilised by Lighting Designer Chantal Wilson. Spots and warmth helped create the stage and dressing room areas nicely, however some of the Mac2000’s were not as helpful. There were several live moves and focuses during the performance notably when we went in and out of the Stage Right performance area which were distracting and I suspect were due to programming. On the way out I double checked the desk which was an Ion and more than capable of being programmed without the live moves. Maybe these were an aesthetic choice? If so, not one which worked well for me or added effect or helped tell the story for the best part. One move towards the end did work – and that was when two of them simultaneously swept over the audience to meet Centre Stage giving the impression of two followspots sweeping to stage. If this one was also a programming error it at least worked in the productions favour. Annoyingly the Mac2000’s also seemed to be misbehaving in their intensity – frequently fading up in intensity – then increasing noticeably with a snap a few beats later. There were also a few times when timings and cues seemed to leave our solitary performer in the shadows longer than necessary – including the final bow where Peter Groom was left without front light whilst the crew threw flowers from mid-way down the aisle. That mistake was – in my opinion – avoidable because the moment was entirely unnecessary. Mr Groom had already won us over – and that moment felt forced and amateur in comparison with the rest of the evening. It’s a shame because these were the only really noticeable and distracting thing. The rest of the lighting was simple and effective in telling the story, and utilised the adequate festival rig quite well.
The staging was simple and elegant moving between the performance area Centre Stage, a backstage dressing room type space on Stage Left and various other locations Stage Right.
At a compact and well used 60 minutes, this show is the ideal length for a one (wo)man performance and keeps the audience engaged throughout. It’s a well crafted piece of theatre that sits comfortably in its current environment.
Dietrich – Natural Duty
Created and performed by Peter Groom
Co-written by Oliver Gully
Directed by Bethany Pitts
Wednesday 24 January to Saturday 28 January
Sunday 28th at 4.45pm
Press Night 25 January at 7.45pm
Running time: 60 minutes
Entrance via Leake Street
Ticket prices: £11.50