Theatre Review: Who is Dory Previn? - Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol
This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Kate Dimbleby walks on stage and talks of screaming on a plane and immediately it becomes clear that if we don’t already know about Dory Previn, whose words these are, then we should. Here is a woman who has spoken of extraordinary things and written extraordinary songs and yet today there is little knowledge of her.
Dory was a singer-songwriter, thrice married and most famously to the composer André Previn, who poured her life into songs naked with pain but accessible through humour. Born Dorothy Langan in New Jersey in 1925 to a strict Irish Catholic family, her father’s First World War experiences were so extreme that they led to him boarding his family into a room for several months. Yet, as soon as young Dorothy displayed a talent for dancing, he turned pushy parent and took her to Hollywood. There, after a series of misadventures, she found work as a lyricist for MGM, first collaborating with and then marrying Previn. But, as her mental frailty became more overt, he eventually left her for the young ingénue Mia Farrow.
Dimbleby recounts Dory’s life through a mixture of song, autobiographical narration and her own explanation of how she came to know Dory’s songbook. She’s accompanied on the piano by Naadia Sheriff who harmonises beautifully and partners Dimbleby in delivering key lines of narrative. It’s an entertainingly assured combination; transported from the New York cabaret circuit to the mean floorboards of the Tobacco Factory, this is no fly-by-night venture. The show has been developed over the course of six years and, in bringing it to Bristol, Dimbleby is performing in her new hometown.
Under the direction of Cal McCrystal (One Man, Two Guv’nors), many of the autobiographical details of Dory’s difficult life are glossed over, her abortions briefly mentioned and some of her darkest moments treated lightly. But this was often Dory’s approach too; although Beware Of Young Girls is a map of her heartbreak over losing her husband to Farrow and her insecurity is echoed in Lemon Haired Ladies, Twenty Mile Zone is a humorous take on her subsequent breakdown. What could be more natural, after all, than screaming on your own in a car when your life has fallen apart? Or screaming on a plane when you are terrified of flying?
There are more tentatively hopeful songs, too. Lady With The Braid captures the tender nervousness of a first night with a new love; “there’s this coverlet my cousin hand crocheted/do you mind if the edges are frayed/would you like to unfasten my braid”. Joby Baker, the man who became her third husband was with her until her death in 2012, but Dory came to realise that human beings can’t be bound and our only true security lies within ourselves.
More questions are raised than can possibly be answered. Why, for example, does André Previn apparently escape scot-free from blame for his affair, with all Dory’s vitriol being reserved for Farrow?
In the end it is the songs and, in particular their lyrics, which are triumphant. The audience on the first night is a knowledgeable and appreciative one, calling for an encore. But, for those coming afresh to Dory Previn, this show will leave you wanting to find out more. Dimbleby’s passion for her subject provides an affectionate, tantalising glimpse into the life of a talented yet deeply troubled woman unafraid to lay herself bare through song.