Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but I have a feeling that actress Frances Thorburn – who is tasked with playing the eponymous icon in Sue Glover’s new bio-play Marilyn – would settle for a drama of real depth and substance. Playing Monroe must be akin to walking a high wire: stray too far from the Marilyn of public imagination, and you are bound to fall; descend into mere imitation, however, and you risk appearing like a second-rate talent show contestant.
If Thorburn (who has the face, the physique and the voice for the role) doesn’t quite make it across the wire, it has little to do with her often lovely performance. Ironically, as Marilyn herself discovered, star quality can’t always compensate for a lacklustre script.
The play (which is directed by Philip Howard, formerly of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre) opens auspiciously enough, focusing on Monroe in 1960 (two years before her death), during the Hollywood filming of the unsuccessful movie Let’s Make Love, in which she co-starred with French matinee idol Yves Montand. One is intrigued by the playwright’s decision to go with an all-female cast; Monroe is joined in her Beverley Hills hotel room by Montand’s wife, Oscar-winning actress Simone Signoret (Dominique Hollier) and Marilyn’s imagined hair colourist, Patti (Pauline Knowles), a useful vehicle for recalling the star’s personal and career history, and a nice comic element (she constantly refers to Signoret, with a New York drawl, as “Miss Seniory”).
Placing Monroe – the archetypal female sex symbol (without whom Madonna and, even, Lady Gaga would be unimaginable) – in an entirely female context should have been a theatrical masterstroke. However, Glover’s script never quite capitalises on its own opportunities.
Marilyn’s frustration with both her “dumb blonde” image and her faltering marriage to Arthur Miller, and a series of biographical facts (her Jewish origins, her time in a Los Angeles orphanage, her courageous opposition to McCarthyism) offer the possibility of a powerfully original characterisation. However, despite strong performances all round, and an excellent, dream-like set by Kenny Miller, Glover’s characters remain, essentially, caricatures; a fact underlined, towards the end of the piece, by the dreadfully written fight between Monroe and Signoret over Marilyn’s affair with Montand, which seems like nothing so much as a theatre version of Dolly Parton singing Jolene.
At the Citizens, Glasgow until March 12; then playing the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, March 15 to April 2.
This review was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on February 24 2011
© Mark Brown