Review – Marilyn and Ella, Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Thursday 28 February 2008

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.


11 Responses to “Review – Marilyn and Ella, Theatre Royal, Stratford East”

  1. Jmc Says:

    The fact that anyone anywhere has ever thought that Bonnie Greer could be described as a “playwright” is one of the more opaque mysteries of the contemporary British cultural scene. Well done to the Whingers for blowing the whistle.

  2. Helen Smith Says:

    Bonnie Greer is always so scathing about the state of British Theatre on Newsnight Review that I thought she must know an awful lot about it, so I insisted on going along to see Marilyn and Ella in the hope of picking up a few tips. Worst case, I thought the songs would be nice. I have come across Warren Wills a few times before and he’s a very talented Musical Director.

    I must admit, I rather enjoyed the production and thought that Andrew had as well – he was leaning forward attentively, making copious notes and chuckling. Even when a girl at the back of the Dress Circle answered her mobile phone with ‘Yeah? I’m in the theatre…’ it didn’t seem to break his concentration.

    When Andrew got to his feet at the end of the first half shouting ‘that was wonderful, if only Phil were here’ I was worried he was about to do some sort of standing ovation, even before the interval.

    But just like Michael Jackson in the eighties saying ‘bad’ when he meant ‘good’, I think that when Andrew said ‘wonderful’ in this context he might have meant the opposite.

    It’s a lovely theatre, though. The toilet cubicle I used in the interval had a plaque on it saying it was sponsored by Stephanie Cole. The one next door had been sponsored by Miriam Karlin and I would have used that but it was out of order.

  3. Simon Treves Says:

    Brilliant brilliant review. I’ve always found Ms Greer’s pontifications on Late Review suffocatingly pompous. This review exposes everything I suspected. Another scalp for the wonderful Whingers!

  4. Wow. This sounds like must-see entertainment for fellow riders of the train-wreck express, and something that I should book for immediately.

  5. mark I Says:

    “fellow riders of the train-wreck express” – what a great expression! Must try and pass it off as my own soon.

  6. mark I Says:

    PS what a shame though; I do love Nicola Hughes – although I completely agree that no one has ever sounded remotely like Ella Fitzgerald 😦

  7. Jarlath Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. It was dire.

    Being a huge Ella fan I was going to avoid it but was persuaded to go because of the presence of Nicola Hughes whom I’ve loved in everything she has done.

    Sadly, I’ve now gone off Nicola. It seems like the Director did nothing to rein her in. She has an amazing voice and could have made a good stab of at least copying Ella’s approach to songs if she had had some direction. Instead she was allowed to embellish all the notes like some drag queen on speed doing Mariah Carey. Have these people ever listened to Ella? What characterised her performances was simplicity, perfect diction, perfect pitch and no embellishment. She didn’t need to because her voice was so perfect. It’s also why jazz purists never liked her that much, especially her more popular recordings, such as the Songbooks.

    As for the portrayal of Marilyn, the attempt to re-position her as a civil rights warrior and feminist icon was just laughable. The woman was a walking train wreck and a sad victim of circumstances and it does her no justice to re-invent history to make some half baked political points.

    This play started on the radio apparently that’s where it should have stayed. It depresses me that people that this drivel might be the first introduction to Ella for those who may no little or nothing about her. My advice is: save yourself a trip to Stratford and go and buy her recordings of the Songbooks. There you will find everything you need.

  8. Prince Peter Says:

    Really like the play. Simple and well put. The Ella songs were sung well, but of course your not going to listen to Ella Fitzgerld reincarnated are we. Nicola did a good job, although the audience were a bit dull, more clapping and getting into it would have warmed the place up…………..possibly too many “Theater Critics in the house!”

    Marilyn, was a bit too old sure, and well a little more rounded than the real life one, but that aside the acting was great and Wendy brightened up the stage with her energy while Nicola did so with her songs, the Mack the Knife renditions was a good one.

    I loved the name dropping, Mrs Jean Simmons and Steward Granger! wow how it must have been back then, heh Arthur ; ).

    “Too much Entertainment” may make the mind dumb as Marilyn quoted her Arthur as saying but that play sure was ENTERTAINING.

    As for Bonnie Greer. Highly respected African Woman of substance.

  9. Adrienne Says:

    well having read all the above; must say I am very disappointed. Heard Jo Ann Good on Saturday morning talking about the play. Having loved Marilyn and Ella for years and years immediately told my partner about it and even during the day told a couple of friends (who were also fans) about it. I was going to book us tickets for Wednesday evening but my stepson and girlfriend have now invited us round for dinner to his new house so I said to my partner that I would book it for either Tuesday or Thursday. As he always does he reads reviews before we book anything. I of course had read reviews but only the theatre’s own and one from Time Out – which I have to say were both glowing. I now am very glad I’ve saved myself some money and a boring evening by the sound of it!! having been to the theatre on other occasions when we’ve been unhappy I’d rather now not go.

  10. westendwhinger Says:

    Strangely Newsnight Review didn’t cover any theatre this week-funny that.

    Kicking myself I missed it…but loved reading Andrew’s programme, containing “the text”. Hilarious.

  11. Katy Says:

    Due to a serious tactical error, I read the favourable Time Out review but failed to check the Whingers site and Andrew’s seering critique before booking to see ‘Mella’ (as I believe Bonnie herself calls it) on Saturday. It was my first visit to Theatre Royal in Stratford, despite it being a stone’s throw from my lovely Docklands home. Before I got into the auditorium I was impressed by the lively atmosphere, the caribbean food on offer in the bar and the presence of Charles Dance sauntering through the foyer. I thought ‘In terms of a diverse audience + community feel arts venue – this is just what the Arts Council wants to encourage’. Anyway, in terms of the play, I agree that the dialogue to off stage characters in the first half seemed phoney and disjointed. However, once the 2 actresses got together in the second half it worked much better as they were firing off each other and there was some interesting DIALOGUE between them.Plus the songs – particularly Ella’s set at Mocambos was pretty impressive. Indeed, in my view, Nicola’s decision not to try to sing with exactly the same intonation as the unique Ella was the right one – as she is impossible to impersonate.
    So, all in all, and entertaining evening despite some bumpiness in the writing and smugness from the writer.

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