Dietrich: Natural Duty – Wilton’s Music Hall, London

Writers: Peter Groom and Oliver Gully

Director: Olive Gully

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

When we think of the sirens of the 1930s and 1940s, the golden age of Hollywood, we tend to focus on their glamour – the movies, the outfits, the lovers and, often, their own personal tragedies – but rarely do we place them in the context of world history, the day-to-day social and political experience of living in one of the most turbulent periods of the Twentieth-century. So, Peter Groom and Oliver Gully’s show hits on a fairly unique structural approach.

Dietrich: Natural Dutycarefully aligns Marlene Dietrich’s musical output with her biography before and after the Second World, drawing on the events of her life with strong relevance to particular songs, and giving them added meaning. In what is at times a fairly melancholy show, Groom and Gully use the cabaret format to recreate scenes including her first audition for Blue Angel and speaking to her mother in 1945 for the first time since war broke out, mixing this with musical performance and an interview conducted years later by a journalist.

In this one-hour piece these three strands work extremely effectively together, creating just the right balance of nostalgic reflection and entertainment, resulting in a sensitive examination of Dietrich’s character and her lack of regard for her own talent or importance. The shadow of the war and her experience working in the front line while singing for the troops leave an indelible mark, and as Groom performs Where Have All the Flowers Gone with a rising tide of anger and sadness, the whole room feels the full meaning of its lyrics.

It’s not all gloom and some of the high points of Groom’s embodiment of Dietrich – for this is far more than mere impersonation – come from the unsentimental and pragmatic descriptions of her working life. Dismissing the mythology of acting leads to the admission “there’s none of me in the character… Say your lines and get off”, while a uniformed visit by senior Nazis to Hollywood is savaged, describing them as looking “like extras… sorry background artists,” before indulging in some cheeky innuendo with the audience standing in for a crowd of eager GIs.

Musically, many favourites are performed, linking I May Never Go Home Anymore with Dietrich’s renunciation of her German citizenship, The Boys in the Backroom with the war years and a German version of Don’t Ask Me Why with the desolation of her home country. Groom also draws on the well-known mannerisms and long pauses between words that even Pinter would approve of, leading into audience-pleasing classics Lili Marlene and closing with Falling in Love Again.

Dietrich: Natural Duty is a celebration of Dietrich as a performer, actress and personality, situating her artistic approach with her experiences in the middle years of the Twentieth-century. For silver screen legends, the effect of the Second World War is only considered from the perspective of the male actors who served but by trying to understand Dietrich’s restraint, Groom and Gully’s show has much to say about its emotional effect on Hollywood Goddesses as well, a rare chance to see behind the myth.

Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Contributed

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