At first glance, the name posted on the dressing-room door at the Wyndham’s Theatre on Charing Cross Road is familiar enough, and yet, well, this is how it actually reads: JUDI FUCKING DENCH.
Behind the dressing-room door, in post-greasepaint repose, is the biggest star of London’s spring-summer theater season: Madonna Louise Ciccone. Despite a drama career of scant distinction, Madonna found no difficulty in leveraging her global celebrity into West End marquee lights. A vulgarian at the gates of Denchland.
It is by now obligatory for journalists to mention that Madonna is smaller than one would imagine; tonight, wrapped in a pink cardigan and alone in this plain little dressing room, she looks considerably less vibrant than the nuclear-powered chanteuse who has atomized public opinion for nigh on two decades. She has just taken her nightly spin through the emotional wringer that is Up for Grabs, a play by David Williamson, a leading Australian dramaturge. She plays the pivotal role of Loren, an ambitious but failing New York art dealer who stakes her future on gulling a group of wealthy collectors into bidding up a Jackson Pollock painting to a record $20 million.
Inventively staged around a bilevel glass box with sliding panels that frame clever rear projections, Up for Grabs is a largely sucessful, if occasionally prosaic, satire of the to world, which is portrayed as a canvas-thin social construct. And Madonna herself is largely convincing, if occasionally stilted, in her portrayal of a brazen climber whose aspirations threaten to outstrip her ability. If anything rings false about her performance, it is in the casting of a 44-year-old woman, especially this one, as a callow neophyte.
As always with Madonna, it is near impossible to separate the art from the personality: audience members gasp when she takes the stage; they chuckle knowingly when her character protests, “I’m not a crass materialist”; they purr approvingly at her designer wardrobe and exchange knowing glances when her cell phone rings out “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Reviews have been mixed to negative, ticket sales brisk. ‘Twas ever thus.
It has to be to Madonna’s credit that she took on the unpleasant part of Loren in an era when the sole imperative in most stars’ choice of roles is the need to be liked. “It’s a little late for that,” Madonna counters wearily backstage. Just four tube stops north of the theater is the Camden Palace, the dance club where Madonna made her London debut some 20 years previously. In 1982 the ultra-fashionable venue was playing host to such early MTV staples as Culture Club, the Eurythmics, and Madness. Seymour Stein, the man who discovered Madonna and signed her to his Sire Records label, persuaded the promoters to let his sure-shot future star promote her debut single, “Everybody,” on their stage, and London’s nightlife elite were duly impressed.
Record-company faith in the young Madonna was not necessarily reflected in the standard of her accommodations. “The first couple of times I went to stay in England I always had to take a bath down the hallway,” she says. “And I thought, O.K., that’s how it is here: if you want to take a bath, you just go down the hallway. It didn’t occur to me that people had bathrooms inside their houses.”
When she appeared again at the Camden Palace, to promote her next single, the party was in her honor. Thus was set a career trajectory that has seen her burn off every competitor of her generation, selling 140 million albums worldwide and bewitching the planet with an inimitable string of image transformations and pop anthems. Ten years ago, people marveled at her staying power. And now? What is left to say?