Hello Norma Jeane could have been just a warm and perceptive tale about ageing, memory and identity, built around a grandmother springing a surprise about her past to her gay grandson, had it not been suffused with the legend of Marilyn Monroe. It is MM’s name that people remember, the eternal attraction that will guarantee full houses for Dylan Costello‘s play.
She is, or was, the star remembered most fondly, the one whose death provoked conspiracy theories, the one celebrated in song, whatever her flaws as a human being. If you belong to a certain generation, the sight of two actresses of different generations singing I Wanna Be Loved By You, each wearing that iconic white dress from The Seven Year Itch, will flood your brain with happy nostalgia.
In 2003, 76 year old Lynnie (Vicki Michelle) has escaped from a nursing home in Essex to LA in order to prove that she really is Monroe, and that she faked her death, chased by said grandson, Joe (Jamie Hutchins) and helped by gay American actor Bobby (Peter McPherson) and imaginary MM alter ego (Farrel Hegarty.)
There are a number of plot twists to keep your interest, but the entire scenario appears at face value to hang on whether Lynnie is indeed the person she claims to be, or whether an old lady is just seeking a last dying moment in the spotlight.
However, whether or not she is Monroe is almost irrelevant by the end, but to satisfy those wishing to know the answer is provided by a smooth and shallow simpering talk show host, brilliantly played by Hegarty – the best laugh of the night for me. The ending retains just a suspicion of ambiguity that just might, conceivably mean everything you learned that far could yet be overturned… but we will never know, any more than we will ever know with certainty if there were any circumstances in Marilyn’s death that prevent it being a run-of-the-mill suicide case and instead something far more menacing.
Granted that to find the real Monroe living a family life in Essex would have blown the media into a frenzy to end all frenzies, not least with questions about the Kennedy dynasty, but what matters in the final instance is how well we actually know our loved ones, or indeed ourselves – and whether we believe the yarns we are told as a token of faith and love for those we cherish. This is a fantasy, a parable against which to set a moral to the tale: listen to the memories and the stories but don’t judge one way or the other.
This is a nicely played script on a simple set by a well-cast foursome, three characters sketched in for background and motivations, plus the mental image of an icon, all we have left of the late Norma Jeane Mortensen, the insecure, troubled person behind the Monroe iconography. Costello fills in some background but he is not really giving a history lesson, only enough detail for the benefit of those for whom Monroe is a long-dead and faded movie star without connotations of beauty, innocence and glamour.
Perhaps the biggest problem this play has from a reviewing perspective is that I have seen in recent weeks thunderingly great productions of several classics (Wit, The Mikado, The Homecoming and Uncle Vanya), such that Hello Norma Jean can only seem slight, wistful and amusing by comparison – a super bantamweight against such heavyweights. It lacks the depth and substance to compete, but in theatrical terms is light relief, a diversion, an implausible voyage around Marilyn with a few pertinent thoughts – and none the worse for that.