Marlene Dietrich role is a natural progression for Kate O'Mara

A new play imagines a meeting in 1969 between unlikely but close friends Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward. Features editor Bridget Galton meets Kate O Mara I HAVE played a lot of monsters in my time, laughs Kate O Mara with a throaty chuckle, as she m

A new play imagines a meeting in 1969 between unlikely but close friends Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward. Features editor Bridget Galton meets Kate O'Mara

I HAVE played a lot of monsters in my time," laughs Kate O'Mara with a throaty chuckle, as she mulls her latest role as Marlene Dietrich.

"But their saving grace is they had a sense of humour. Marlene had none whatsoever. I have read so many books about her - her daughter's is particularly unkind.

"She was snappy, didn't suffer fools and talked about herself all the time. I have seen her in interviews being absolutely boot-faced and was very depressed thinking I was going to play this monster - I sooo don't want to disillusion people. It's daunting living up to what people expect

to see."

O'Mara is blessed and cursed by her talent for playing memorable monsters. She may have excelled in legions of Shakespeare and straight drama, but the public love her at her most vampish and bitchy.

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Whether playing Joan Collins' sister, Caress, in 80s supersoap Dynasty, Patsy's ageing sibling in Absolutely Fabulous or a lag in Bad Girls, her feline beauty exudes the same alluring blend of glamour and toughness as a 40s Hollywood actress such as Joan Crawford or Bette Davis.

Which is why she is bound to make a good fist of Dietrich - in all her unpleasantness.

Lunch With Marlene is set in 1969 as the star, approaching 70, gets together with long-time friend Noel Coward.

If act I reveals her less charming side, act II sees Dietrich and Coward perform "the dream concert they never actually gave" as they put together a charity cabaret act.

O'Mara hopes it is a chance to win back the audience with Marlene's more attractive side.

"I saw her act when she was alive and I thought she was sensational. On stage she was enchanting and I hope people will forgive her being awful in the first half if I play the charm of the woman in the second with lots of smiling and twinkling," she says.

Veteran classical actor Frank Barrie is Coward and agrees

it's "hugely difficult playing an icon, especially if you don't look like them".

He adds: "You have to look for the essence of them, to give a flavour of them, their general attitude to life. Coward was always looking for fun. I met him so that's a bit of a help - it stops you thinking of him as not human. He was a very kind, loving person. But with a very witty character the audience expects you to be witty all the time and you also have to be part of the plot."

O'Mara oddly empathises with some of Dietrich's quirks, claiming like her she has Teutonic ancestors and "strict disciplinarian approach".

"In the end, one has to make her one's own as Helen Mirren did with the Queen. I hope people will accept my version of her."

O'Mara and Barrie, who have 100 years of stage experience between them, first worked together at The Haymarket in The Crucifer Of Blood in 1979.

Their real-life friendship should enrich the play's portrayal of a genuine bond between Dietrich and Coward.

"Marlene really loved him, her letters are full of affection. She called him 'My own sweetheart,' and 'My darling'," says Barrie, who was invited to be part of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre in the 50s, playing lead roles in classic plays opposite the likes of Geraldine McEwan, Joan Plowright and Olivier himself.

"He is very patient with her. I don't quite know what he saw in her. He loved her artistry I think."

O'Mara finds it sad to think of the ageing Dietrich becoming increasingly reclusive until her death in 1992 at the age of 91.

"She was a very lonely old woman. She had lost her looks, which were so much a part of her persona. In the modern age, if you go out in public you are going to be paparazzoed with a caption 'Look at the poor old thing now'.

"The public don't want that, they want to remember the icons - that's why Marilyn Monroe had a sort of luck to die at 36."

During O'Mara's spell in Hollywood in the 80s, the industry fought hard to protect actors' glamorous personas

by cushioning them from ordinary life.

"They wanted you perfect and flawless all the time," she says, rolling her eyes.

"They didn't want you to look normal or go to the supermarket. You were supposed to have a maid to do that. But I can't bear this preoccupation with materialism and outward show, and I found it difficult. I disobeyed all the rules like walking to the studios and driving my own little car. Joan Collins had similar problems. She was the Queen of Hollywood at the time and I remember her getting upset and saying living in the spotlight was like being in a goldfish bowl where you were

not allowed to be anything other than glamorous."

O'Mara recalls when her Dynasty storyline came to an end, producers told her she could hang around in Hollywood and they might bring her back in.

"They were surprised when I said I was going back to do King Lear. They were like 'You go and do your little play'."

But O'Mara has always liked diversity in her career. Whether playing (another) monster in Dr Who, taking a leading role in a West End play, a Shakespeare role, or a part in daytime soap Family Affairs.

"I remember I was unsure about taking the [Dynasty] role because I had just done a successful play at the Old Vic and people said I should capitalise on that. But that opportunity to be seen in 90 countries meant I was in demand in a different sort of way and gave a boost to my profile. I am very pleased I have done such different things, it's all grist to the mill."

O'Mara was born 68 years ago to an RAF flying instructor father and an actress mother, Hazel Bainbridge. She made her stage debut in 1963 in The Merchant of Venice and found early screen fame appearing in Hammer Horror films The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein.

Three times divorced with one son, she lives alone in the "middle of the country" and keeps busy, performing, directing, running a youth theatre, writing shows for her theatre company and authoring four books.

"I find it sad that all the ambition I had in the early days seems to have disappeared but I still need to work for myself, to keep alive and interested and engaged in something artistic."

Plenty of scripts drop through her letterbox but she is dismayed to observe a litany of gratuitous swear words.

"Every other word is 'f**k' and one comes from a generation which never used this language."

O'Mara is game for anything, although she finds herself often cast in the mould of posh, tough women - even when she is behind bars in Bad Girls.

For both her role in the prison drama and Family Affairs she thought her characters should have an accent but was told: "We've only got two posh people in this, you are one of them."

"I gave up. Even though I couldn't see how this woman dragged herself up to be posh. There was just no background you could latch on to."

Barrie comments that it's much harder to act in a soap and make terrible scripts sound good than to perform Shakespeare.

O'Mara agrees. "It's much more difficult to make something of awful lines," she says."That's what makes a good actor - to have done the wonderful stuff as well as the dross."

Lunch With Marlene runs at the New End Theatre from Wednesday until April 27.