PLAYWRIGHT Pam Gems died on May 13 at the age of 85. The announcement came in the final week of rehearsals for the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s revival of her play Marlene, a moving celebration of the legendary actress Marlene Dietrich.

“We were all saddened by the news of Pam’s death,” says artistic director Chris Monks.

“Presenting her vibrant, entertaining play is giving us all huge challenges, but we’re determined to make our best work as a tribute to a unique theatrical voice and a lovely, generous human being.”

The role of Marlene will be played by Sarah Parks, one of the most familiar voices on the Yorkshire stage.

“Before Pam Gems died, I did have it in mind to write to her to say how wonderful her play was,” says Sarah.

Marlene picks up the story of screen and stage goddess Marlene Dietrich in Paris in the 1970s. By now in her seventies, she is preparing for her evening’s solo performance.

In the twilight years of her career and acutely aware of her celebrity status, Marlene is as fierce as ever, but backstage, as she gossips, gives press interviews and appears the demanding diva, Pam Gems’ play shows glimpses of the nerves, the pressure and the need for applause.

Sarah was invited to audition for the role of the German singer, actress, Hollywood star, glamorous beauty, wartime idol and cabaret performer, but has a confession to make.

“I have to say I didn’t know much about her. I think I came from the wrong era, trying to move on from black and white films,” she says.

“So the first thing I did was read the script and Pam Gems has done a fantastic job. You do get the famous songs, but most of the show is about peeling back to what’s underneath.”

Sarah is playing Dietrich in her fading years.

“She was physically on the wane but still magical to her fans,” she says. “Still performing in her seventies wasn’t about vanity; it was her sense of duty to what you have, what God has given you, as well as not being sure of what your identity is away from the limelight.

“It’s not about ‘I can’t believe I’m getting old’, but about feeling compelled to perform to her audience… until she broke her thigh, tripping over a cable in Sydney and finally had to stop.”

Sarah has played a real person previously.

“That was in the 1980s, in my first job, when I was doing documentary plays for Mikron, who tour by narrow boat. We wrote plays about the boat people, most of whom have now gone, but one was about the trainee women who worked on the boat, and that was the most nerve-racking night when all these women came to see it,” she says.

Playing Marlene is a very different challenge.

“It’s taken me all this time to realise I have the same vocal range as her,” she says. “And because the script is so good and detailed and rich, and ultimately I’m doing a play, not an impersonation, it’s my role to peel back the veneer. If you want to see the real Marlene Dietrich, watch the films.”

• Marlene runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough from this week to June 18 and August 24 to September 3. Box office: 01723 370541 or