23 October 2017
Terry Johnson’s play, first seen at the Royal Court in 1982, has its origins in that the playwright read that a signed photograph of Albert Einstein was found in Marilyn Monroe’s processions after her death. His brilliantly imagined script places Einstein in a hotel room in New York, just blocks away from where Monroe is filming the infamous white dress scene in The Seven Year Itch. Einstein is being pressurised by Joe McCarthy to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and a jealous Joe DiMaggio turns up, furious at witnessing the filming of the scene and the leering of the crowd that turned up to watch. Except no one is called directly by name, they are The Actress, The Professor, The Senator and The Ball Player, and by doing so, the play examines identity, fame and image. No one is as they seem to the world, except possibly The Senator.
Director David Mercatali’s production is under powered at first, it takes a while to settle in and the actors need time to play with the text. As The Senator, Tom Mannion initially appeared nervous, lacking the sleaziness and passionate vitriol that we would expect. However, his return in Act two really begins to bring this aspect out, and his fury is better enjoyed when let off the leash more. As The Professor, Simon Rourke is excellent, a wonderful study of calm and confusion, seemingly both surprised and unsurprised at the visitors and events that take place in his hotel room as he tries in vain to work out the shape of space. Alice Bailey Johnson grows in stature as The Actress, this being no dumb blond, explaining the Theory of Relativity to the Professor, (and getting it right), and she remains unsure about the Heisenberg Principle, one of many excellent gags that puncture the play. As everyone points out to her that she is “her”, Johnson could have brought out a stronger division between the screen “her” and the public, particularly in her voice, but she captured perfectly the fragile beauty and tragedy of Monroe. Oliver Hembrough also reflects this tragedy in a funny yet moving portrayal of The Ball Player, the real dumb one in the room, recording his fame in the number of baseball cards he features in in the packets of chewing gum he works through. The couple’s longing for a child, and the fact that a punch from The Senator causes The Actress to miscarry, and the disintegration of their marriage, is perfectly realised.
Thirty five years on, Johnson’s play still dazzles in its wit, intelligence and word play. There’s a terrific gag involving a cat that The Professor is “looking after for a friend”, and when confronted by The Senator, he refuses to sign any paper “Because it is my name.” He then reveals that he heard it in a play a few evenings previously, gives the playbill to The Actress and advises her to see The Crucible. (Written by Monroe’s next husband, Arthur Miller.) While its’ not quite the production that the play deserves, there is much to enjoy in an evening that will pace up during its run.