Even though I was only nine at the time, I still remember the power of the official narrative about Marilyn Monroe’s death.
The Marilyn Conspiracy, Assembly George Square Studios (Venue 17) ****
CABARET & VARIETY
The Marilyn Monroe Story, Assembly Rooms (Venue 20) **
As Elton John observed, “all the papers had to say/ was that Marilyn was found in the nude”; and that combination of leering prurience and punitive self-righteousness fitted like a glove around the idea that this gorgeous, free-spirited sex-symbol of a woman had come to an inevitable bad end, overdosing on sleeping pills in despair over the end of her third marriage, and the fact that at 36, she was no longer young, in Hollywood actress years.
The only trouble with this powerful yarn was that, as the decades rolled by, it began to unravel, and to be exposed by one writer after another as a tissue of lies. The Marilyn Conspiracy, an imperfect but utterly gripping new drama by Guy Masterson and Vicki McKellar, set in the living room of Marilyn’s Hollywood house in the six hours after her death, tells, to the best of our current knowledge, the shocking story of how and why that narrative was constructed, by the seven people closest to Marilyn at the time.
The play is desperately confusing at first, and urgently needs to use its tableau-like opening moments to let the characters tell us exactly who they are; for those not already in the know, it takes more than half the play before it emerges that Patricia, the wife of Marilyn’s actor friend Peter Lawford, is actually the sister of President Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, both of whom had had affairs with Marilyn.
It’s a measure of the sheer power of the story, though, that the play rivets the attention nonetheless, as the two doctors in the room, and even Marilyn’s furious friend Pat Newcombe, are gradually worn down into conniving with the suicide narrative. And most remarkable of all, 56 years on, is the extent to which this tale of casual sexual exploitation in Hollywood, and of powerful men willing to go to any lengths to silence women who might expose them, meshes perfectly with the #metoo moment in which we now find ourselves. Marilyn, too, knew all about sexual abuse in and around her industry; and it seems she may have paid the ultimate price of those who know too much, and who threaten to break their silence.
JoJo Desmond’s cabaret show The Marilyn Monroe Story is a fragile little piece by comparison, a brief and simply staged hour of songs and biographical narrative tracing Marilyn’s remarkable life, not least through versions of some of her most famous and fabulous costumes. Desmond sings Marilyn’s songs beautifully, in a near-perfect imitation of her breathily gorgeous voice; and she, too, observes the link with the #metoo moment. Her script, though, never soars into anything like the brilliant writing a life like Marilyn’s invites and for all her charm, she is a long way from even beginning to capture the glowing charisma of the woman herself.
• The Marilyn Conspiracy until 27 August, 1:45pm. The Marilyn Monroe Story until 26 August, 9:40pm