I Loved Lucy review – Lucille Ball is diminished by this needy bioplay

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At the height of her success, Lucille Ball was the most famous woman on the planet. A newspaper suggested that her face was more familiar to the American public than Jesus Christ’s. Idi Amin was a huge fan. Reruns of the self-produced sitcom I Love Lucy, in which she and her husband Desi Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a version of themselves, were still being screened long after the final episode of the six-year-long series was broadcast in 1957. There were endless spinoffs, keeping Ball working well into her 70s.

Ball was ahead of her time. Washed-up in the movies, she spotted the potential of TV long before others working in Hollywood. She kept control by self-producing, and the studio she founded, Desilu, spawned other hits, including Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. She filmed in front of a live audience. She was married to a Cuban during an era when tensions between the US and Cuba were rising.

She was a fascinating woman, but you wouldn’t know it from this limp bioplay written by Lee Tannen, who became close to her in the final decade of her life. He clearly adored her, but this play is a case of killing the thing you love – stone-cold dead. Only a heroic performance by Sandra Dickinson, who plays the elderly, demanding redhead with warmth and a distinctive bark, brings a pulse to a corpse of a show to which director Anthony Biggs shows no signs of wanting to apply the kiss of life.

The problem is that this isn’t really The Lucy Show, but the Lee Tannen show. He plonks himself centre-stage and turns it into his story of the gay Jewish fanboy growing up unhappily in the Bronx, whose friendship with his idol Lucy was clearly the most significant episode in his life. Matthew Scott makes Lee suitably needy and nerdy but never entirely likable, or for that matter mildly interesting.

Because the story is seen entirely through Tannen’s eyes, Ball is diminished, reduced to an increasingly cranky, gossipy old woman, bitching about the size of Clark Gable’s penis and inquiring just how fat Elizabeth Taylor has become. The most dramatic thing that happens is that the pair fall out before the interval and are reconciled immediately after. Nice for them, a shame for us.