Four iconic figures come together one hot 1950s summer night in an all-American hotel bedroom. This is the situation Terry Johnson creates for his 1980s meditation on celebrity. The quartet comprises Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, her husband, the baseball-playing legend Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joseph McCarthy, instigator of the Un-American Activities Committee.
With the Beckhams in the spotlight, and President Bush’s declaration that ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’, this is a timely revival of a funny, thought provoking play.
Our simplistic response to celebrity tends to pick on the most obvious attributes of our chosen icons. Johnson plays on instantly recognisable images to explore their true complexity as individuals. Monroe is actually wearing the famous white-pleated dress; she’s just filmed - in public - the revealing scene in which it’s blown around her shoulders
The professor with his long white hair and skinny limbs and the screen goddess with her blonde halo and gorgeous figure may seem an unlikely pairing, but in Johnson’s scenario they have a touching compatibility. Gina Bellman’s mercurial, alluring Monroe proves far from dumb as she explains the theory of relativity her own way. And in Paul McCleary’s performance, Einstein’s combination of sweet nature and steely determination proves genuinely attractive.
They both need determination to stand up to McCarthy’s bullying techniques (convincingly red-necked Alan Perrin). So it’s hard not to cheer Stephen Hartley’s well-meaning DiMaggio when he takes him on in gallant defence of his wife (mistaken by McCarthy for a Monroe-look-alike prostitute).
But Monroe now aspires to brains rather than brawn and despite DiMaggio’s devotion, the marriage is on the rocks. There’s a nice moment when Einstein turns down her proposal but gives her Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, inspired by McCarthy’s persecutions – now inspiring Monroe in her search for husband number two.
There are genuine attempts to explore Monroe’s vulnerability, most shockingly when her blood-stained slip reveals that even as she’s exposed in public, she may be miscarrying a child. There’s also much appliance of science in the service of quick-fire dialogue.
The performances are nicely balanced in Rupert Goold’s lucid, fast-moving production. Apart from an unconvincing wig, Bellman looks the part and although her take on Monroe’s distinctive enunciation jars initially, her committed performance wins through. Ruari Murchison’s terrific stars-and-stripes set keeps the best till last in a tour de force which I won’t reveal - go see for yourselves.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Northampton)