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Phil Willmott

Review: I LOVED LUCY at the Arts Theatre

I Loved Lucy - Arts TheatreI must confess I couldn't pick vintage U.S sit-com mega-star Lucille Ball out of a line up and I don't think I've seen a moment of her work but for the generation before me reruns of her hit show were ubiquitous and her on screen persona seems to have been a wisecracking, goofy surrogate mum to much of the western world in the 1950s and 60s.

What an extraordinary women she must have been, cutting through the sexism of mid-last century to build a career not only as a TV institution but as a business woman. What's more she fought for a very public marriage with a Cuban at a time of tremendous anti-Cuban prejudice. A great subject for a drama then but the trouble is I didn't get this information via a dramatisation. I got it from director Anthony Bigg's programme note for Lee Tannen's ludicrous, autobiographical play.

Ludicrous because in one of the most extraordinary pieces of public narcissism since what ever Trump last tweeted the playwright believes the most interesting thing about Ball was her relationship with him.

Matthew Scott plays the author, doing his best to make this dull, clingy man appealing whilst Sandra Dickinson plays the great comedienne permitted to chip in occasionally but only in support of his story not hers.

This consists of his meeting her, progressing from dumbstruck awe to regularly playing her at backgammon, the two bantering, squabbling, making up and him being sad when she dies.

First it was a published memoir, fair enough, I guess you could flick through a paperback before purchase and ascertain it was about the fan not the star but in booking for the stage show don't make the mistake of thinking you'll get a play about the lady on the poster.

Perhaps, if I'd thought about it, I might have realised the "I" in the title "I Loved Lucy" indicated that "I" would be the central character but as far as I know Ball's sit-com "I Love Lucy" had her screen persona at its heart not her writers.

Much as I'd like to consign this wasted evening to one star oblivion I can't because Dickinson is mesmerising as Lucille Ball. As I say I'm unqualified to judge wherever she captures her mannerisms, I'm reliably told she does, but regardless it's a beautifully judged performance. There she sits in her red wig and owl like glasses capturing all the insecurity, the ego, the temper and the benevolence of a once great figure who has quite simply out lived her fame and only has a needy gay man to hang out with. As she listens to her acolyte's tiresome ramblings you feel she's a benevolent lioness indulging her cub, who could at any moment extend a paw and knock him into the dust for overstepping the mark. If only!

Could someone please write a play about Lucille Ball for Dickinson to star in.

The director Anthony Banks and designer Gregor Donnelly, both of whom I should disclose I've worked with, do their very best as guns for hire, keeping the action moving swiftly around the chat show set dominated by light up letters that spell "Lucy" and I hope they were paid handsomely for the indignity.

This is the show's second revival. Very few of the previous production's main-stream reviews warranted a further outing, although I can quite see it's an enticing prospect for Ball enthusiasts and may have sold accordingly; but both they and the star deserve much better then this vanity project with a capital V.

I Loved Lucy tickets