When I was a student, I worked in a care home.  Somewhere in a drawer I have a half-written short story about an old lady in a similar institution who remembers, through the fog of Alzheimer’s, two things: the heyday of Hollywood, and that she once “almost died”.  Only on the last page does she tell her carer she once also had another name – ‘they called me Marilyn, Marilyn Monroe’.  Bite me, it’s no nuttier than the plot of Hallo Norma Jeane.

On press night, management seem anxious. Journos are offered drinks before, during interval and after the show. Social media joked about the potential of Vicki Michelle to shed the belted mackintosh of ‘Allo ‘Allo and don the accordion-pleated white dress of Marilyn Monroe. Friends of the production team clap over-enthusiastically and on cue at every blackout: there was similar engineered reaction from American sponsors at I Loved Lucy and Hand to God and to be honest there’s no surer way to put critics on their guard.

However, there’s little to be apprehensive about: Michelle convinces from the get-go as a 76-year old potty-mouthed Essex ‘nan’ whose dopy Argos-employed gay grandson comes to find her absconded in a motel room in Los Angeles. It could be the Catherine Tate sketch, until nan Lynnie reveals she might be Marilyn Monroe, herself absconded from the scene of her faked death in ’63 and spirited away to Southend with the help of the CIA.

Despite the fact the CIA probably couldn’t find Southend on a map there’s enough plausibility in Lynnie’s story, and wry one-liners mostly about age or sex in Dylan Costello’s script, to carry you through the twists and turns of the first act as Lynnie and her sidekick set out to ‘prove’ her story by retrieving from various hiding places Joe DiMaggio’s signed baseball, Arthur Miller’s glasses, and her diary – nothing from her first husband, LAPD detective Jimmy Dougherty perhaps because he’s not famous but was also still alive when this story was set so might have identified her.

Michelle’s performance maintains buoyancy through the second act transition from comedy to superficial reflections on ageing, but there’s some squelchy sentimentality and facile sub-plotting about the grandson’s unfaithful partner back home and his consequent attempt to bed the fanatically gym-sculpted actor/hustler Lynnie has hired. Peter McPherson certainly adds value to the two-dimensional actor character (front row seats furthest from the door if you’re ready for your close-up), and appearing as two fantasy Marilyn characters Farrel Hegarty is endearing as the young Norma Jeane.

Giant Cherry Productions‘ claims its mission is to promote original LGBT writing and sycophantic Gay Star News said ‘the way that gay characters are portrayed is commendably matter-of-fact and authentic’ but that’s bollocks: here the gay characters are presented as stupid, shallow, insecure, unfaithful, violent, body fascist and cock obsessed stereotypes.  In their pants.  That may be true, but it doesn’t push the envelope of good drama.

When this show aired at the King’s Head in 2014, reviews suggested it should be cut. Here, it’s expanded to a needless 2 hours 15 when the sweetness of the idea really demands the sharpness of an hour-long Edinburgh version.

In a couple of genuinely amusing scenes, various characters pull a gun but hold it consistently in the left hand. It’s not even the upstage hand most of the time so I couldn’t work out why – Marilyn wasn’t a southpaw.

Once Matthew Gould’s overly affectionate production picks up pace, it could be a more amusing evening – and since it’s at the delightful Park Theatre where tickets are never more than £20, a bargain too.

 

A version of this review appears on Londonist.com