Goodbye Norma Jeane ☆☆☆☆☆
Above the Stag
Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jeane Mortenson) died of an overdose on 5th August 1962 in Los Angeles at the age of 36 and this astonishing production is set during that torrid summer’s day.
Jack Cole (played by Tim English) wakes up to this news on his sofa from an alcoholic slumber induced by the previous night’s party. The party appears to be still going strong judging by the group of hot men by the pool (so we’re told!) that we can tantalisingly hear, but are just out of sight. Jack is the successful choreographer of choice to the stars on stage and screen – and we are talking heyday Hollywood – where he created dance magic for actors such as Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Ann Miller, Lana Turner and of course the eponymous Monroe in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like it Hot.
Each of these ‘muses’ appear in the play, popping in to reminisce, to bitch and of course have a cocktail, and are all performed with charisma and energy by the delightfully camp, musical theatre veteran Rachel Stanley. She serves up a supersized portion of chutzpah with a side of sass, giving the audience an inkling of the star power of those she portrays and during one brief song her stunning vocal abilities are showcased leaving you wanting more.
Word of Monroe’s death begins to ripple out to those around her and those who worked with her. Against this media frenzy backdrop, Betty Gable says drily; “She’s even more annoying now she’s dead”.
How can it be that the name of Jack Cole, creator of such cinematic history and who is credited for inventing jazz-dance (the basic dance style of all stage musicals ever since), is not a household name like his peers and those he inspired such as Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins?
We examine his life and achievements through the prism of Monroe, and we listen agog at the tricks of the trade he used, and how he urged her to go beyond the “copybook routines” and managed to elicit iconic performances such as Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend
A fuchsia dress with a red background was Jacks choice apparently, and by integrating music, costume and set, it shows the control he had achieved over the presentation of his work. Jack complains that in those days the dance business couldn’t copyright a move (“I can’t own a step!”) so the industry developed its own method of Intellectual Property ownership – namely the public statement of who had trained or worked with whom. It was passed on like an elephant’s memory so there is a direct line between Jack Cole to Beyoncé via Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Check out the celebrated Mexican Breakfast alongside Single Ladies and be amazed;
The superlative set design by Stewart J Charlesworth (who also designed the costumes) is delectably evocative of a mid-century classic Hollywood home like the Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills – yet the palette is rendered entirely in shades of grey, right down to hilarious details such as the grey underwear flung high on a bookshelf amongst the empty bottles and cigarette packets. This monochrome backdrop allows all the more visual impact when his muses pop by, backlit in pencil skirt suits, capes, swimwear, gloves, hats and fascinators but always with a fuchsia accessory.
The sound is disappointing (the balance is wrong when you can hear the actors wheezing over their dance track), as is Tim English’s performance – as grey as the set design – under powered and underwhelming, voice set at whisper, he is an experienced performer so not poor; just peculiar – appearing in a stained old vest and checked shirt (Hollywood party wear – really?). The audience is not sure if this signals he’s all washed up, or happily domesticated with his boyfriend and doesn’t care, but there is no clue in his characterisation (or the writing to be fair).
The play does, however, have a truly intriguing premise that utterly draws you in and convincingly places you in that time and place. There are endless bitter insights about fame (” When you’re at the top, you’re at the top alone”), artistic endeavour, ownership & legacy, backstage genius versus on screen star quality, studio power, and professional rivalry all set against that fateful day in ’62. As Jack says, perhaps in death Monroe will finally find peace and “No longer be a prisoner of [her] own ambition”.
16 March – 7 April
REVIEW: JONNY WARD