Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Stage: A dance to remember

Goodbye Norma Jeane
by Liam Burke • dir Robert McWhir
Above the Stag, Vauxhall • from 16.Mar-7.Apr.19

Essentially a one-man show set over one day, this clever, involving play unfolds as a backstage Hollywood version of A Christmas Carol in which a hungover choreographer is visited by the spirits of seven stars from the studios' golden age. Rooted in a true story, the play inventively weaves in a series of classic dance moves, exploring the magic of the movies from an angle that's initially fascinating and ultimately deeply moving.

The play centres on Jack Cole (Tim English), the creator of theatrical dance as we know it, who on 5th August 1962 is holding a pool party in his West Hollywood home. Then he hears the news that Norma Jeane, aka Marilyn Monroe, has been found dead. As he reminisces about working with her on various film projects, his muses drop in to see him: Gwen Verdon, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Ann Miller, Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth and Norma Jeane herself (all played by Rachel Stanley). What follows is a series of conversations that include fragments of songs and dance numbers, as Jack walks through his career in the context of Hollywood history.

English & Stanley (as Verdon)
Notably for a play with such a heightened premise, this production is remarkably understated. English plays the character with earthy sensitivity, recounting Jack's story conversationally, never indulging in arch melodrama while quietly revealing his chemistry with each of these larger-than-life divas. And Stanley's performance is a marvel of subtle detail that brings each woman vividly to life, with both personality quirks and exhilarating choreography (Verdon is the highlight, and Grable is particularly fabulous).

It of course helps that writer Burke has carefully researched this story while Above the Stag fully invests in the set, lighting, costumes and wigs, all of which bracingly ground the fantasy. And the show's choreography is carefully recreated from routines Cole created for these icons, exploring the very nature of artistic invention and legacy.

The result is a provocative, expertly underplayed drama that pulls the audience into a carefully recreated version of faded old-world glamour. Watching it, we are entranced by each visitation as it evokes yet another indelible movie memory. Then Jack's never-sentimentalised journey into grief makes the play itself unforgettable.

No comments: