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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Smoking with Lulu
by Lizzie Loveridge

She's mine. She is bound to every fantasy, to every erotic notion, to the very idea of sex, bound hand and foot to the bedpost with a silk stocking. The heathen idol in my religion.  
--- Ken
 Smoking with Lulu
Sophie Millett as Lulu, Thelma Barlow as Louise Brooks and Peter Eyre as Kenneth Tynan
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
There is a tale which may be apocryphal about a play from Britain imported to New York. The cast were rather diffident about the nudity and profanity in the work and wondered how the American audience would react. At the interval about eighteen people left the auditorium. Were they shocked at the bad langauage? Were they offended by the sexually explicit scenes? No, they were protesting at the passive smoking.

Smoking with Lulu was originally called, and I kid you not, Emphysema (A Love Story) and of course a love story it is, but not a conventional one. The British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan was thought by many to be the finest of his generation and was much admired by his fellow critics. Recently his reputation has been overshadowed by his diaries detailing his anal sadistic predilections and wife beatings. Tynan was obsessed with the portrayal, by the actress Louise Brooks, of Frank Wedekind's heroine Lulu, "an angel whore", in the 1928 silent film,Pandora's Box. Louise Brooks, as a star of the silent screen, would be the female equivalent of much adulated Rudolph Valentino.

Canadian Janet Munsil's fictitious play is set in the late 1970s, some fifty years after the Lulu film was made in the Rochester New York apartment of the elderly and bed bound film star Louise Brooks, where she agreed to be interviewed by Ken Tynan after decades of silence. The resulting article was published in The New Yorker, for which Tynan regularly wrote, as The Girl in the Black Helmet a reference to Brooks' hair, a shining black bob which framed her face. Tynan's fascination with the enigmatic Lulu, whom he found intensely sexual, was heightened by the lack of dialogue in the film. Thus this sophisticated, acerbically witty man went to worship his idol, now a frail old lady with osteo-arthritis and emphysema but still an incredible woman who had led an unconventional life. What he found was an erudite woman who read Proust in between takes on Lulu. Tynan fulfilled her need for literary and witty conversation; for him, meeting her was a dream come true. What further linked these two people was their chain smoking. Both died from emphysema, Tynan at the terribly young age of 53.

This play about the above events has three characters. Peter Eyre, who gives a creditable impersonation of the worldly Tynan, holding a cigarette between his second and third finger, but stammering in the film star's presence. Thelma Barlow plays the quirky, irrepressible Louise Brooks as an old woman and Sophie Millett is Lulu, the vision of perfect womanhood that Tynan relished and fantasised about. Fantasy sequences in which Lulu and Tynan flirt and talk about sex and punishment often have a backdrop showing scenes from the 1928 film. At one point, in an attempt to merge the past fantasy and present actuality, Lulu drops her black satin sheet revealing Louise's bedjacket. Smoking with Lulu is a play where the basis of the action is imagination and I found the intervening Lulu figure - she and Tynan use "Dahling" every other word - curious and clumsy.

This a play will be most interesting for people who come to it with some knowledge of Kenneth Tynan. Having read his New Yorker article on Brooks or a biography of Louise Brooks or having seen the film Pandora's Box would help. Without some background this is likely to be a case of watching someone worship without having any idea of the tenets of the religion.

Smoking with Lulu
Written by Janet Munsil
Directed by David Giles

With: Peter Eyre, Sophie Millett, Thelma Barlow
Design: Kenneth Mellor
Lighting Design: Michael Odam
Sound design: Mic Pool
Running time: One hour thirty minutes with no interval
A West Yorkshire Playhouse Production
Box Office: 020 7478 0100
Booking to 30th March 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th February 2002 performance at the Soho Theatre and Writers' Centre, 21 Dean Street London W1
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