Artsclub Theatre Company

Dates: 29 January - 29 February, 2004
: The Stanley Theatre

Reviewer: John Jane




Like most people of my age, I only know Mae West by reputation and her namesake reference in Webster’s dictionary for an inflatable life-jacket. I had seen just two of her films, "Myra Breckenridge" (1970) and "Sextette" (1978) and hated them both. So it was with some apprehension that I found myself at the Stanley theatre to see a play which has the life of the infamous blonde as its central theme.

I need not have worried. Claudia Shear’s piece is gloriously hysterical with broad humour; familiarity with Mae West’s career or even the ‘thirties culture’ is a bonus, rather than a pre-requisite for enjoying this excellent production.

Mae’s story is essentially told in chronicling well-known events throughout the burlesque performer’s professional life. It is juxtaposed with what initially appears a disjunctive real-time subplot about Jo and Charlie, a couple of Mae West devotees in New York who are drawn together in an unsure relationship when they discover a mutual obsession with their idol. Ultimately Jo and Charlie’s friendship blends seamlessly with Mae’s encounters and becomes the play’s main storyline.

Nicola Cavendish’s portrayal of the bawdy blonde is neither a tribute nor a clinically accurate impersonation. Cavendish does manage to get West’s unique vocal cadence down, though it’s the Vancouver actor’s perfect delivery of the late diva’s come-hither campiness and comic timing that makes her performance a ‘tour-de-force’.

Cavendish also takes on the role of Jo, a chatty actor whose personality contrasts with that of the flamboyant blonde. There is a scene near the end, when Cavendish with deft stagecraft, merges the two characters into one when simultaneously assisted with her dress by Peter Jorgensen, playing Ed Hearn in Hollywood and Allan Morgan playing Charlie in New York.





Fifteen other male roles are shared equally by Morgan and Jorgensen. Morgan’s main responsibility is for the role of Charlie, a shy archivist with a bent for cross-dressing, who is drawn closer to Jo as he gradually discovers a resemblance to Mae.

The moment one enters the theatre, one is struck by David Robert’s minimalist set design. The set is a forced perspective with neutral wall panels and a stand-up piano on a revolving platform at left stage. Scene changes are created by Gerald King’s imaginative use of pastel coloured lighting. King took the audience from a chinese restaurant to Jo’s unkempt apartment with barely a shift in the staging.

While not strictly a musical, ‘Dirty Blonde’ offers the audience a couple of amusingly entertaining show tunes. In particular the show opening ‘Tough Girls’, with all three cast members taking part in a musical homage to Mae West’s celebrated tough image. There is also a witty duet that Cavendish does with Jorgensen while in his role as Mae's husband, Frank Wallace.

Claudia Shear makes little of West's encounters with fellow actors; no doubt mostly unsubstantiated Hollywood gossip. Shear does reveal the star's well publicized loathing for W.C.Fields in a hilarious altercation when the alcoholic performer arrives drunk at rehearsal.

Mae West never cared too much about where she found fame, but when she found it she grabbed it and embraced it. While her flame burned bright in films, it quickly burnt out. Her brilliant comic talent was veiled by her perceived vulgarity and it was eventually left to her more demure contemporaries like Claudette Colbert and the short-lived Jean Harlowe to evolve as Hollywood’s screen legends.

© 2004, John Jane