Norma Jeane: The Musical – LOST Theatre, London

Composers Anton Mullan, Ali Isabella, Andy Street, David Martin, Mike Daniels, Geoff Cotton, Orna Klement and Graham Noon
Writer: TL Shannon
Director: Christopher Swann
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Opening during the week of what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 90th birthday, this musical account of the life of the star born Norma Jeane Mortenson puts the spotlight on the troubled woman and consigns the glamorous movie icon to the background, making it more a psychoanalysis than a biography.

The time is February 1961, Norma Jeane’s marriage to playwright Arthur Miller has just ended and her career has taken a downward turn. She is seen checking into a mental home, thought to be a suicide risk and needing treatment for drug addictions. Dressed in a white petticoat, Sarah Rose Denton makes her a sad and confused figure, contrasting completely with her alter ego Marilyn, played by Strictly… star Joanne Clifton, who certainly looks vivacious in a range of dazzling gowns and, unsurprisingly, she dances like a dream.

Norma Jeane’s family had a history of mental illness, including a mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia she hears voices from her past as she confronts her demons. We go back to her childhood years, by-passing the Hollywood glories and the marriages to baseball star Joe DiMaggio and Miller. We learn that Norma Jeane was obsessed by a father that she never knew and tormented by repeated rejections as early as infancy.

A duet between Norma Jeane and Marilyn promises much for the device of mingling characters real and imagined and, generally, it works well. Song titles such as In My Mind, Crazy Like My Momma and We’re Not Crazy indicate a clear, if repetitive, theme and, individually, many of the songs are rather good. Also, most of them are very well sung and a five-piece band under musical director Alex Bellamy serves them well.

However, the songs are written by eight different contributors and, in a possible case of too many chefs spoiling something, there seems to be a lack unified vision. Too often, it feels as if songs are being thrown in for no better reason than to break up the tedium of TL Shannon’s prosaic book.

Peter Bingemann’s set design does nothing to lift the show’s gloom – Norma Jeane’s “cell” having plain, dark walls, furnished with just a single hospital bed. There are several strong performances from a company of 14, including Joseph Bader, Ruth Betteridge, Darrie Gardner and Maggie Robson, but director Christopher Swann struggles to inject pace into spoken scenes and he relies heavily upon the flair of Adam Scown’s choreography to bring the musical numbers to life.

“Depressing” is hardly the ideal tag to pin on a musical, but, here, the tone is overwhelmingly sombre and we get far too few glimpses of a natural comedy talent that has brought joy to millions of filmgoers for decades. We are left in no doubt that Norma Jeane’s life was a mess from start to finish, but perhaps it is for mirroring this mess, albeit unwittingly, that the show will be best remembered.

Runs until 18 June 2016 | Image:David Elms

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