Steven Berkoff’s Dahling, You Were Marvellous (on at the Burton-Taylor Studio in 4th week) offers a biting parody of the world of theatre and the theatrical luvvies within its bubble.
The play presents an evening in a fashionable West End restaurant where the after show party following an opening night performance at the theatre is in full swing. As the evening unfolds, we meet a range of characters from the worlds of theatre, TV and film. In amongst the sycophants and hacks, is Brick Bergman, a New York movie star, Sir Michael Wally, a renowned theatre director, Sid, a left-wing fringe elitist, Morris Welder, a fat-cat English producer, Dicky Tong, a harsh critic, and many more. As they all engage in the business of schmoozing, networking and backstabbing, the desperate dependence of these characters on the outside world to give their lives substance and meaning becomes fully apparent. An audience, any audience, is what they crave.
“It’s a style of performance that I really enjoy,” co-director and producer Ellie Page tells me when I ask why she chose the play. “And it’s good to parody the theatre world, poking fun at all those people who take themselves too seriously — myself included!”
Watching the performance in rehearsal, the physicality of the comedy is particularly striking. The bare set design — there is hardly any set dressing or props — is, Ellie tells me, an important aspect of the Berkovian style, with the audience’s focus directed entirely towards the actor’s physical work. “We approached the grotesque characterisation by ‘stretching’ a more realistic character,” she says, “and explored how changing our dominant body part affected the character. Some body parts were fairly straightforward, such as the chest, but others were far more obscure, such as the tongue or teeth.”
I was shown a preview of several different scenes; they work like snapshots of the theatrical and media worlds, as the focus rapidly jumps between the different characters in the restaurant. The five-strong cast, Helena Wilson, Nick Davies, Misha Pinnington, David Meredith and Cameron Cook, are thus called upon to play multiple roles. Cameron Cook, who along with Ellie Page has co-directed the production, emphasises how the cast have tackled this challenge. “The cast have worked hard to create very well defined characters, which helps when it comes to playing multiple parts,” he explains. “The greatest difficulty is sustaining the energy required to keep the clarity of character.”
From the rehearsals I witnessed, it seems the cast have managed to achieve their aim. The production moves along at a rapid pace, with smooth scene transitions helping to retain the high intensity of the performance. If the wit and verve of the rehearsals that I saw is translated into performance, they promise to deliver a wildly amusing evening’s entertainment. Although a challenge, they all agree that the retaining of the energetic focus of the production is one of the best aspects of the performance and they have very much enjoyed the opportunity to play such a variety of absurd characters.
Although the play is based on the London theatrical scene, the intensity of the world of Oxford drama makes Ellie’s final comment on the play’s depiction of the theatrical world seem rather pertinent. “I think sometimes people see it as a social club, hoping to make their own membership more special by keeping others out.
“Poking fun at this kind of behaviour is an entertaining way of highlighting that I suppose, and trying to reverse the trend. That being said, I know I fall into some of the classic behaviours but I do try to at least be self-aware about it!”