THE LATE MARILYN MONROE
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st January, 2018
We’ll never know what happened during the last moments of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Conspiracy theories abound, each one wackier than the last (the CIA, the Mafia, she was about to tell the world about the existence of aliens…); here, writer-director Darren Haywood, following extensive research, pieces together an impression of what might have been, but his play is more than a dramatic reconstruction.
We spend Marilyn’s final hours with her in her bedroom. The constantly ringing telephone is a source of annoyance and also comfort as she takes and makes calls, looking forward to plans for the next day, the next week… For a time, we don’t believe this is a woman on the verge of suicide. But then, as Tania Staite’s impressive portrayal reveals, Monroe is not exactly stable. Capricious and volatile, she rounds on those closest to her, hurls colourful invective down the phone at Bobby Kennedy, and then switches back to a child-like persona, desperately insecure about her looks, caving under the pressure of having to be Marilyn Monroe.
Tania Staite gets the cadences of Monroe’s voice – it’s an evocation rather than an impersonation, and Staite settles into the role; it’s the first night and I can’t tell whether first-night stumbles are actually part of Monroe’s distracted state!
There is sympathetic support from Ellie Darvill as housekeeper Mrs Murray, a maternal, nurturing presence who is on the receiving end of Monroe’s paranoid flights of fury. Dru Stephenson is also good as Monroe’s long-suffering friend and publicist, while Martin Rossen’s visiting psychiatrist adopts more of a friendly and paternal bedside manner than a professional detachment.
Haywood’s writing is excellent – his Monroe really comes alive when she’s recounting anecdotes of Hollywood gossip – and, thanks to Staite’s performance, we do care about this vulnerable victim of the celebrity machine. The whole thing is flooded with doom and dramatic irony. We know she’s not long for this world and so lines like “I may just go to sleep and never get up” and “You’ve got time ahead of you” have resonance the characters don’t realise.
Marilyn’s early death speaks to our age directly. Not just because of its fairy-tale-gone-wrong aspects but because her story reveals times have not changed. The celebrity machine churns on, chewing up and spitting out stars, and our culture is still obsessed with every detail of their private lives. Also, Monroe discloses (although it’s not secret) that she had to sleep her way through a slew of directors and producers to get her break, and this brings the production bang up-to-date with the spectre of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. Show business has not changed and, by extension, the world has not changed. Monroe’s demise remains a powerful indictment of the sleazy patriarchy that both made and broke her.
Absorbing and well-played, the production could benefit from a few cuts – especially in the second act – so that it makes its points more efficiently.