Review: ROGUE’Z Theatre – The Winter Gift at the Urdd Hall, Cardiff
Reviewed by Sam Pryce
Apparently, there is no Garbo, and there is no Dietrich; there is only Louise Brooks. That’s according to French film pioneer Henri Langlois, and he should know his stuff. Louise Brooks is probably a name that doesn’t ring any bells. Indeed, it didn’t ring any of mine either. Her legacy remains something quite obscure, partly due to her contemporaries being the gloriously immodest likes of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Yet, in this fond but frank portrait of the silent screen icon, award-winning writer TJ Davies attempts to discover what went wrong for “the girl with the black helmet.”
Director Nerys Rees presents a stripped-down production with a minimalist set that cunningly incorporates the monochrome palette of silent films. The cinematic atmosphere is enhanced through the integration of projection intermittently showing snatches of footage – some of Brooks herself, others made by the company. Lizzie Mulhall’s costume, hair and make-up by Natalie Wright compliment that black-and-white sophistication and pre-show introductions to the dramatis personae are thrown in for good measure.
The narrative flits back and forth from the feisty, fresh-faced Louise Brooks in her heyday (played with fire-cracking audacity by Rhian Cheyne) to the destitute, alcoholic recluse she became. Karen Thomas gives a reckless portrayal of this darker side, slumping about the apartment yelling in a hoarse rasp. Andreas Constantinou brilliantly plays the devoted fan James Card who visits Louise, pleading her to write her memoirs and allow the world to realise her worth. It is these duologues that prove the most engaging and well-written, sizzling with venomous ruckuses, whilst the vignettes from the past tend to have us stifling yawns. Other notable performances are given by: Louisa Marie Lorey who is monstrously funny as the eccentric Alice Roberts; James Pritchard as the silver-tongued Shulbberg; Andrew Ford as a comically deadpan Fritz Kortner; and Brian Smith as GW Pabst – the director who brought Brooks to fame. And, of course, à la Alfred Hitchcock, Nerys Rees makes her own scantily clad appearance as Marlene Dietrich, provoking more than a few chuckles.
Although the play’s subject is perhaps a little esoteric, Davies peppers the dialogue with enough context to not lose anyone along the way. Younger theatregoers (unless aficionados of silent cinema, of course) may not be downright enthralled, but if you’re up for a sprawling bio-play of one woman’s experiences of fame and (mis)fortune, you’ll be in for a treat.