Andrew hadn’t laughed this much in years. Poor Helen practically had to carry him out in the interval. Oh, what a shame Phil wasn’t there.
This was Bonnie Greer’s Marilyn and Ella at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.
According to the website, it is “a new play by playwright Bonnie Greer” in case you thought that it might not have been written by a playwright.
An understandable mistake, as it turns out.
Marilyn and Ella
tells the story is a two-hander based around the fact (possibly) that Marilyn Monroe (in addition to warning suspected communists that they were under investigation) was a human rights activist who ended the color bar at the Mocambo club in Hollywood by agreeing to sit in the front row every evening if her idol Ella Fitzgerald were invited to perform there.
In the first act Ella is behind gauze and Marilyn is in front of it. They do not speak to each other because they have never actually met.
This makes the potential for dialogue somewhat limited; Greer’s solution to this problem is to have an awful lot of Marilyn and Ella speaking to other people who are just off stage or on the other end of a telephone.
This results in some awesomely bad one-sided conversations in which the characters are embarrassingly obliged to repeat back whatever has been said to them (“Feldman? What did you say? The director will see me tomorrow?” or “Flossie, Flossi, calm down! OK I’ll do that charity elephant ride down Fifth Avenue, but I’d rather be marching down South… Ella Fitzgerald would, I bet… What do you mean, I don’t know what I’m talking about? Of course she would… She’s not what I think she is? Oh come on Flossie, she doesn‘t sing like she keeps herself to herself” etc etc)
To break up the awkwardness of this a bit, they sing songs from the Great American Songbook (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”; “Mack the Knife”; “Someone To Watch Over Me”;). The whole thing would have been a lot more bearable if it had just been the songs.
First problem with the concept: Nicola Hughes has a great voice, but no-one sounds like Ella Fitzgerald. No-one in the history of recorded music has ever sounded like Ella Fitzgerald except Ella Fitzgerald.
Second problem: Wendy Morgan has got Marilyn Monroe thing down to a T, but Monroe was like a drag queen parody of herself and you can’t imagine her controlling the dramatic heart of any play. This play proves it.
Third problem: A surfeit of facts (the curse of our Wikipedia age) including exhaustive lists of the celebrities who hung out at the Mocambo.
Fourth problem: A compulsion to hold one sided conversations with famous people through doors (Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller’s wife) or over the phone (Norman Mailer) or by reading notes they have written (Marlon Brando).
But it’s not just the
dialogue monologue. Pity the actors for the stage directions which would make even Tennessee Williams blush:
Marilyn is in spotlight. Her ultimate, her immortal creation. This is the envy of every woman; the desire of every man. World box-office number one. The legend. But for her, it is like being at the last judgement. Or visiting the “Wizad of Oz”: full of anticipation, but there is a doom-laden-last-judgement atmosphere. She is delivering herself up to the beast to be slaughtered for the sins of the world. When she reaches the top her arms are outspread. Like Jesus on the Cross.
So many questions:
- What was the post that Marilyn kept rubbing up against?
- What was all that stuff about broken pitchfork?
- Blood in her shoes?
- A farthing in New York?
- Who is playwright Bonnie Greer?
Ask no more – simply buy the programme (and playtext) for £3 which starts with a five page interview with Ms Greer in which the last question is: “Any Thank Yous?” and to which her answer is “To Theatre Royal Stratford East for letting us do Marilyn and Ella and for being so supportive. And to my parents who worked hard so that I could have the kind of life that gave me permission to be myself.”
Yes, but who is she? According to the BBC Newsnight Review website (on which Ms Greer is apparently a regular pundit):
She studied theatre in Chicago with David Mamet and in New York with Elia Kazan. She has lived in Britain since 1986, where she has worked mainly in theatre with women and ethnic minorities. She has won a Verity Bargate Award for Best New Play and has played Joan Of Arc on the Paris stage.
According to the programme she is also on the board of directors of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.