THIS revival of Marlene has taken on a patina of poignancy after the death of playwright Pam Gems on May 13.

“We hope this performance will serve as a fitting tribute to the life and times of a very special lady,” says the hastily added note at the bottom of the programme interview conducted with the socialist realist writer in the lead-up to Chris Monks’s production.

In it, she talks of finishing a play called Winterlove and starting another that explores the phenomenon of envy, but also of the inspiration behind Marlene, a play prompted in part by her desire to write a part for Sian Phillips after she starred in Gems’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

“All right, but make it glamorous, darling,” said Sian, and make it glamorous she did. Or rather, she made it glamorous in the waning winter years of German film star, singer and icon Marlene Dietrich, as she prepared for a concert in Paris in the 1970s, still so blonde, still keeping herself hungry at every meal to stay trim, but troubled by brittle legs in her 70s.

“How are the legs?” she is asked. “Legendary,” she replies.

Gems already had written Piaf, and if the obituaries were unanimous in rating Piaf the superior work – and they were right – Marlene is nevertheless deserving of a new look. In a nutshell, it is not a gem of a play, lacking the depth and range of Piaf and sagging in its second half, but it has a gem of a performance, a tour de force no less, by Sarah Parks.

Sarah, she of the fabulously deep, golden voice, has been one of the staples of Yorkshire theatre, and without generalising, comedy has been her most consistent thread, especially in a run of brassy John Godber premieres.

Here, however, the canvas is far broader, to match the personality and life of the trouser-wearing Marlene.

“I discovered an uncompromising, contradictory, multi-layered character,” says Chris Monks, recalling his research. “By turns monster, role model, brute and victim – a dream for any actress to play.”

That dream turns into reality in Parks’s wonderful performance, all those facets outlined by Monks coming together in one wounded, wounding whole, as Marlene addresses either her taciturn dresser Mutti (Rebecca Jenkins) or her star-struck, love-struck dogsbody Vivian Hoffman (Loveday Smith) or the audience directly.

Scratching away at the shiny surface represented by Jan Bee Brown’s stage design, Gems’s play is strongest on the contradictions of Marlene’s character, haughty yet self-lacerating, one moment outrageously demanding, the next mending Vivian’s sleeve.

The long monologue where Marlene recalls being spat upon as a wartime traitor on her return to Germany in 1960 is the most touching scene; elsewhere waspish-tongued comedy has its sassy say.

Throughout the dialogue is cut with songs, sung superbly by Parks, culminating in a shimmering concert (which could lose at least one song), when Jenkins and Smith reveal their talents on double bass and trumpet.

Marlene, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until June 18, then August 24 to September 3. Box office: 01723 370541 or