An Interview with Sandra Dickinson
| By James Astles
The eternally effervescent Sandra Dickinson is currently charming both audiences and critics alike alongside Matthew Scott in Lee Tannen's I Loved Lucy at the Arts Theatre. The fascinating play is based on Tannen's memoirs of the time he spent with Hollywood legend Lucille Ball in the last ten years of her life. We caught up with Sandra after she and Matthew joined us at our 18th Birthday celebrations at Cafe de Paris.
Thanks so much for joining us at our birthday party Sandra! What enticed you to play Lucille Ball in this play - have you always been a fan of her work?
My friend Victor Spinetti always said "Say yes to everything". Although I don't always say yes, I try to more often than not. I was recommended to the original producer, Andrea Leoncini for an initial reading of "I Loved Lucy" by the agent Barry Burnett. Barry had seen a huge a amount of my work over the years and said, even though I was not his client, that I was the one for the reading. I was offered it and as I had grown up watching Lucy, this was an occasion to say "Yes".
Your characterisation has won widespread acclaim, what were the easiest and hardest of Lucille's traits to master?
My life experiences have been strangely similar to Lucille Ball's but on a smaller scale. In Britain I became known as a "funny lady", and like Lucy had a circuitous marital journey to finally being married to a much younger man who "cared about me and made me laugh". I am a mother and a grandmother. The only glaring difference was that none of my husbands played the conga drum! I have drawn on my life experiences to play Lucy in the last ten years of her life.
Perhaps the hardest part of playing her has been warming my voice up to drop several octaves and play eight shows a week in the basso profundo Lucy tones. Lee Tannen encouraged me to go "lower... lower" and I went low enough to keep him happy. My voice seems quite content now down in the depths.
Would you say people need to be familiar with her work to fully appreciate the show?
The play is very much about the relationship between Lucy and Lee. Lee became part of Lucy's family when she married Gary Morton after divorcing Desi. She was related to Lee through marriage. Lee had met her first when he was ten years old and then the start of their real friendship occurred when he met her again aged thirty. He spent a great deal of time with Lucy playing hours of backgammon and enjoying her friendship. The delight in the play is watching this man and woman through their ups and downs. As Lee is gay, it is rather like a love affair without the sex and with a great deal of humour and fun. They were obviously a huge support to one another and delighted in their time together. Even if you aren't familiar with Lucille Ball, the play provides a terrific evening of insight into an most interesting human dynamic.
The show has previously had two runs at the smaller Jermyn Street Theatre, and the play itself has now been slightly expanded for the current venue. What would you say is the main difference now that you are at the Arts Theatre?
The play was spotted by Anthony Biggs who attended the initial reading and he took it to the Jermyn Street Theatre, where it enjoyed two runs. Gary DiMauro produced these runs and then decided to back the play's move to the Arts Theatre, strangely where it enjoyed its first reading. The Arts Theatre provided a much more generous space for the play to spread its wings and for Lucy's larger than life persona to blossom. It also feels very much more comfortable for me as I have spent nearly the last half-century playing in proscenium arch theatres.
The piece focuses on the lesser known part of her life, her last ten years when she was away from the public eye. Do you think this is a more interesting part of her life to play than her more publicised heyday?
It is a very interesting part of Lucy's life to play as it is perhaps the most difficult part for her. Her life is in a decline in every sense and yet she faces it all in a very rich loam of a life well lived, in a way very few people have been able to face their last years. Lucille Ball enjoyed a fame only rivalled by Jesus Christ so it has been said. That is quite a legacy with which to wind up ones life!
As a two-hander in a very stark set, the audience is forced to really focus on the relationship between the two actors on stage. How would you summarise your relationship?
I have had the extraordinary journey of playing the part with four different actors playing Lee. They have all been terrific but in Matthew Scott, Lee Tannen has found a Lee with whom he can most identify, and for me Matthew Scott has raised the bar. It is a real pleasure to work with him and a delight to watch him bring Lee to life.
I Loved Lucy is playing at the Arts Theatre until 2nd September.