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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hello Norma Jeane
Park Theatre   February-March 2016

An Essex granny escapes from her old folks' home and, armed with her gay grandson's credit card, flies to Los Angeles. 

When the boy comes to take her back, she announces that she is actually Marilyn Monroe, who has been in hiding from sinister government forces since faking her death in 1962 and is ready now for a comeback. 

Dylan Costello's play (which is set in 2003, when granny and Marilyn would have been 76) begins as a light-hearted caper and could-she-possibly-be mystery as the woman comes up with arguments and proofs that begin to convince the boy and even make us wonder. 

But gradually a second play begins to appear, one in which the warm and loving relationship between the two is more important than either the puzzle or the jokes. 

Bitchy humour (Bad news 'will spread faster than Joan Crawford's legs') and open sentimentality sit uneasily side by side for a while before the playwright – perhaps a bit later than he should – chooses to focus on the latter and the play becomes a celebration of the love of grandmother and grandson. 

To bring us deeper into both characters and give the play more theatrical variety than a two-hander could have, each is given a fantasy figure to voice the feelings, doubts or encouragement they need – an iconic white-dress Marilyn for him and a more down-to-earth Norma Jeane for her. 

There are also a gay actor who gets involved both in Grandma's proofs of identity and Grandson's emotional confusion, and a cynical TV hostess offered Grandma's scoop. 

But the heart of the play lies in the boy's love for his grandmother that makes him want to believe she's not crazy, and in her hope that joining her in this adventure will help the boy sort out his own unhappy emotional life. 

And while the play's structure and psychology are a little too formulaic and predictable, its emotional core carries it. It never transcends the genre or gets especially deep, but nice honest sentimentality can be very satisfying for an audience. 

Director Matthew Gould's inclination toward the play's more sentimental aspects is shown in the way his actors are all more comfortable with the serious sides of their characters than with the comedy or fantasies. 

Vicki Michelle never really persuades us that this old woman could be Marilyn but does convince us that she is a loving grandmother, and Jamie Hutchins is stronger in scenes of caring for the old woman than in imagining fame and fortune ahead. 

Playing both fantasy figures (and the TV woman) Farrel Hegarty is not quite right as Marilyn (but then the boy, knowing only the iconic images, might get it wrong) but more convincing as the pre-stardom Norma Jeane, and Peter McPherson, playing the actor who is really more a plot device than a rounded character, must settle for generously serving the play and the other characters. 

There can be no spoiler involved in my giving away that, absolutely predictably, the play ends without fully resolving the mystery of Grandma's true identity – or, rather, by leaving us with strong but contradictory evidence for each side. 

But if play and production work as they want to, by that point you won't really care what name to call this loving grandmother with a loving grandson.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review - Hello Norma Jeane - Park Theatre 2016

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