Dietrich – Natural Duty
Wilton’s Music Hall
Reviewed – 19th November 2018
“Groom’s is an assured and understated performance in which he deftly uncovers Dietrich’s often overlooked private life”
It is 1942. On the battlefields of North Africa, in a gold sequin gown, Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage to fight the war her way. Peter Groom re-enacts this in his one man show, Dietrich – Natural Duty, uncannily resembling Dietrich, or rather the illusory image of Dietrich that we all know and love. But this show is much, much more than an impersonation.
Using the artform of cabaret, Peter Groom gives us a potted history of the “the most famous German woman in the world”; born in Berlin, who becomes a huge Hollywood star. Groom concentrates on the war years when Dietrich’s homeland changes and she is forced to make the difficult choice of renouncing her German citizenship. This approach has the potential of becoming dangerously dull, but Peter Groom is a rare talent. He doesn’t preach or fall into the trap of exposition for one moment. Instead he gets right to the core, capturing the essence and the passion, ultimately delivering a short show that has the emotional impact of the war poems.
Wilton’s Music Hall is a perfect setting for this act. Groom enters and strikes up with ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’. The show is interrupted by an imaginary interviewer which enables Groom to add humour to the poignancy, revealing the dismissive and self-deprecatory side of Dietrich too. Her observations about Hollywood, her disdain for method acting are perceptive, frank and hilarious. “I did as I was told and counted in my head until it was all over” she famously said of her work ethic on set, “… but maybe that’s sex for some people”.
It is one-liners like these that help make the show, and Groom has the unrivalled knack of throwing them away. He doesn’t milk the paradoxes; instead, with a deadpan delivery, he talks of Marlene being ‘relegated’ back to being a movie star after the war ends. It is one word in a split second, in which Groom summarises Dietrich’s spirit. She always referred to the ‘movie star’ as a different person, separate from the one noted for her humanitarian efforts during the war. What this show reveals is the personal cost of her decisions; the agonising choice of allying herself to the US – bombing the city in which her mother is still living. But if she doesn’t do this, Hitler might win. She could never go back to Germany – she tried to in the 1960s, but she was booed off stage as a traitor; bombs were put in the theatres.
Groom’s is an assured and understated performance in which he deftly uncovers Dietrich’s often overlooked private life. “Look me over closely, tell me what you see” he sings in his gorgeous, velvet falsetto. Dietrich’s best-known tunes are all here, including a heart-rending “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”. The only reservation I have is the invisible accompaniment: I did wish, at times, for an onstage pianist. But when Groom tail ends the show with “Falling In Love Again” all is forgiven, and you do fall in love again; with the artist, the show. And with Dietrich.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Veronika Marx
Dietrich – Natural Duty
Wilton’s Music Hall until 24th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: