The Marilyn Conspiracy, Park Theatre

Friday 28th June 2024

Susie Amy and Genevieve Gaunt in the Marilyn Conspiracy. Photo: NUX Photography
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The death of Marilyn Monroe, on 4 August 1962, is a wet dream for conspiracy theorists. Like the assassination of JFK in the following year there is plenty of material in the official accounts that doesn’t quite make sense — which opens the door to free-form speculation. Intrigued by the numerous theories about Monroe’s demise, actor Vicki McKellar and Olivier Award-winning West End and Broadway director Guy Masterson have teemed up to create The Marilyn Conspiracy, which was first staged at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018 and now comes to the Park Theatre in north London. The result is a cogent thriller which explores the mysterious circumstances of the blonde celebrity’s death at the age of just 36.

Blending fact and fiction (it is a play after all), the drama focuses on one room and one night: Monroe’s living room in her Brentwood, LA, bungalow, in the hours after her death. Seven people have gathered: her body has been found by her housekeeper Eunice, who phones for her doctor Engelberg and her psychiatrist Greenson who comes with his wife Hildi — as well as Marilyn’s close friend and publicist Pat Newcomb. Then there is the Kennedy connection: crucial to the plot (in every sense) are actor Peter Lawford, and his wife Patricia Kennedy-Lawford, sister to the president JFK and his brother, the attorney general Bobby Kennedy.

While the official verdict on Marilyn’s death was “probably suicide”, the actual circumstances of the death are mysterious. For a start, although she died at about 11.40pm, the police were not called until 4.20, some five hours later. Why? There might have been an innocent explanation: she was a huge celebrity and there were many people who would have had to have been told about her sudden death, from studio bosses like Darryl F Zanuck to the Kennedy Brothers, who had both been her lovers. Maybe even the CIA. Or, if you prefer, there’s a less innocent explanation.

Based on Donald H Wolfe’s classic book, The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe, McKellar and Masterson’s play explores the possibility of a murder and its cover up. They show how the two medical men — Engelberg and Greenson — cast doubt on the likelihood that the star died from an overdose, and her friend Pat is adamant that she wasn’t depressed or suicidal. The motive for her murder? Easy, she kept a diary in which she detailed her relationship with the Kennedy brothers, and threatened to make this public. So, in the jargon of mafia movies, they bumped her off.

In the play, which takes the form of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the Kennedy clan is represented by Lawford and his wife Patricia. He is keen to find Marilyn’s diary and stop any loose talk about murder, while she defends her brothers, even as she knows about their womanizing. But, in a genre-bending twist, this murder mystery is not really about exposing the killer, but rather about showing how a cover up is put together, how inconvenient people can be disposed of, and inconvenient facts suppressed. The play is an anatomy of a lie.

As such it has a compelling quality which makes the proceedings fascinating to watch. McKellar and Masterson use flashbacks to show aspects of Marilyn’s relationships with the other characters, and this works especially well as regards her best friend Pat: their opinion of powerful men has a nicely satirical slant, and Marilyn’s belated discovery of the orgasm, “the big O”, is a reminder of women’s sexual misery in the years before the advent of feminism. Male power over women is a central theme. Marilyn’s celebrity status is underlined, and in one party scene she is shown performing the role of a celebrity personality, always acting a part, only in private is she truly herself.

And, as the playwrights stress, the real Marilyn was a complex person, sometimes childish, sometimes serious, sometimes affectionate, sometimes raunchy, sometimes unstable, often drunk, often unable to sleep without pills. She can also be paranoid about her bungalow being bugged, and likewise paranoid about disappointments in love. In this version she is genuinely enamoured of Bobby Kennedy, so his rejection of her and decision to stick with his wife Ethel and his kids is particularly hurtful. Her determination to keep her diary private and not give it to the Kennedy clan also comes across strongly.

McKellar and Masterson also emphasize the political context for the idea that Marilyn was assassinated: in the depths of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev competing with the USA for world domination, JFK’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 has weakened the Americans. With the mafia and organized crime opposed to Bobby Kennedy’s judicial attempts to control them, the Kennedies have lot on their plate: do they need a celebrity bombshell defying their wishes? So does this mean that it’s just too tempting to silence this inconvenient female?

In fact, The Marilyn Conspiracy is less about Marilyn than about conspiracy. Although the play shows her as troubled and vulnerable, it is more interested in the mechanics of a cover up, especially the way that power — in the shape of Lawford and his Kennedy wife — exerts itself over individuals. It’s a piece full of arguments, and suggestions, rebuttals and refutations. Although it can get a bit repetitive, there’s a real coherence about the way that medical ethics are twisted in the case of two doctors, and the way that the good nature of two of the women — Pat and Hildi — is ground down beneath the wheels of realpolitik.

Masterson himself directs the debate, on Sarah June Mills’s nicely retro set, and is well served by the cast: Genevieve Gaunt is a breathily charismatic Marilyn, whether quaffing champagne in inadvisable quantities or cuddling her soft toy. She also sings sweetly. As her bestie Pat, Susie Amy exudes empathy and warmth. By contrast, Declan Bennett as Lawford is consistently both charming and menacing, and each of the other actors get their own set pieces: Natasha Colenso (Patricia), Angela Bull (Hildi), Sally Mortemore (Eunice), David Calvitto (Greenson) and Maurey Richards (Engelberg). You don’t have to be a conspiracy buff to enjoy this show, but you do have to like a single-set debate.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk

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