Review: Marilyn and Ella

“In 1955, there’s one rule for white folks, and one rule for black folks.”

After a run last year at the Theatre Royal Stratford, Marilyn & Ella arrives in the West End, playing for five shows over three consecutive Sundays at the Apollo Theatre. Written by Bonnie Greer, recently seen giving Nick Griffin short shrift on BBC 1’s Question Time, this is essentially a two-hander which explores the friendship and connections between Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald. This revival is also quite timely as this month marks the 75th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s debut in a theatre in Harlem which lead to a long, illustrious career.

In 1955, Marilyn Monroe was responsible for convincing the owners of a major Hollywood nightclub, the Mocambo, to book Ella Fitzgerald for a five night run at a time when racial segregation was still the norm. A friendship was thus born and parallels are drawn, if not always successfully, between each woman’s struggles: Monroe’s efforts to reinvent herself as a serious actor and Ella’s daily battles against racism. The play is mostly delivered in monologues by each character, with only a few scenes in the second half played together, perhaps betraying this play’s roots in radio. The action is interspersed with songs from the Great American Songbook, which sometimes served to illustrate the action but also sometimes seemed randomly selected in order to shoehorn in a well-known song (see ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’).
The staging is minimal with just two chairs, and a large mounted picture frame on the rear wall, which changes once to indicate the location and then finally to reveal a real photograph of the two legends. However, Warren Wills’ jazz quartet are also placed onstage which adds a vital energy to the show, under Wills’ superb musical direction. There’s some great arrangements of the classic songs which add freshness to some well-worn old favourites, but the band also provide some beautiful incidental music throughout, and the most incredibly authentic sounding phone ringing, as played on the piano, which has to be heard to be believed.

Hope Augustus’ Ella Fitzgerald is the main star of the show: she has the lion’s share of the performances, a beautiful rendition of ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, and the famous improv around ‘Mack The Knife’ were the highlights of the whole evening, and Augustus wisely steered clear of straight impersonations, instead allowing for her own interpretations to be sufficiently inspired by Fitzgerald. She does however also appear onstage intermittently throughout the show as herself, commenting on Ella’s situation, a device which as well as being completely unnecessary, was very clumsily directed by Colin McFarlane as it was never immediately apparent when these sections started or ended.

Suzie Kennedy’s Marilyn Monroe felt underpowered by comparison, her musical numbers were competent, but lacked the oomph to match her fellow performer. And whilst her portrayal of Monroe is uncanny, or maybe even because of this, she struggled to give Marilyn any real dramatic impact onstage, especially when espousing on civil rights issues. In their main scene together though, their first ever meeting, they spark off each other showing the two all-too-human figures behind the showbiz legends to great effect, and it is a shame that in a play about their friendship, this is one of the few times their characters actually interact.

An unexpected addition was Stephen Triffitt as Frank Sinatra. Originally slated to provide pre-show entertainment, he took the stage to give us a number that introduced the show, reappeared in the show introducing Ella’s first show after singing a song himself, and then reappeared once more for a rendition of ‘New York, New York’ at the finale which was little short of cringeworthy, especially as he hogged all the vocals. In a show which is called Marilyn & Ella, Sinatra’s presence on stage ended up feeling very intrusive.

The publicity for this play clearly identifies it as a “play with songs” and the inherent snobbery contained therein identifies the main problem with this play. As a straight drama, it simply isn’t strong or substantial enough, and Greer’s unwillingness to fashion a proper musical out of this material, despite utilising some of the best known songs of the era, left this viewer disappointed on both fronts.

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