For someone as in love with musical theatre as I claim to be, I have to hang my head in shame that until last night, I had never heard the name Jack Cole. And if you, like me, are not sure who this man is, well I can now tell you that he was one of the most influential choreographers of his day, inventing the idiom of American show dancing known as “theatrical jazz dance” and whose style continues to influence musical theatre choreographers today. Jack was also famous for his work with one of the true icons of the movies and this story is told in Liam Burke’s play Goodbye Norma Jeane which you can catch at Vauxhall’s Above the Stag Theatre.
It is the 6th August 1962 and Jack Cole (Tim English) is trying to write his weekly column for Dance magazine. Turning on the radio, he hears the tragic news of the death of Norma Jeane Mortenson – better known to you and I, as Marilyn Monroe. Shaken by the news, Jack talks of his life and his work in Hollywood, not just with Norma Jeane, or Baby Doll as he affectionately calls her, but with a host of movie stars, such as Lana Turner, Ann Millar, Gwen Verdon and others. Many of these (all played by Rachel Stanley) pop in to see how he is doing and reminisce about their time working with him and Norma Jeane. For Jack, the tragedy of Norma Jeane’s death is intense. He saw how the Hollywood star system took her, and so many others, and turned them into a marketable product – His tale of the transformation of Margarita Carmen Cansino to Rita Hayworth by Columbia Studios is particularly grim. Jack’s other sadness is that he didn’t return a call from Norma Jeane a few days before her death and that he has not yet had the courage to open the parcel she left on his doorstep.
Jack Cole is a fascinating character with a brilliant story to tell about Hollywood in the 30s, 40s and 50s and, with Liam Burke’s words and Tim English’s first-rate performance, that story really flows well. Jack is a man who understands the system in which he works and seems to both loves and hates it. He loves the final product but hates the way the studios abuse their ‘stars’ at times ruining and destroying their lives. Tim captures all of that really well in his performance and has a wonderfully engaging style of delivery that keeps the audience attentive and wanting more – let’s face it who doesn’t love some Hollywood gossip?
Rachel Stanley is an absolute wonder playing seven Hollywood icons – Lana Turner, Norma Jeane Mortenson, Ann Miller, Gwen Verdon, Jane Russell, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth – and bringing each back to life in looks and mannerisms is fine style. And here, please raise your glasses in salute to Giada Speranza and Ryan Walklett for the amazing costumes and wigs that helped Rachel create each character so well.
Stewart J Charlesworth’s living room set feels very authentically 1960’s and gives lots of space for Director Robert McWhir to not only move the actors around but get them doing some pretty impressive and energetic dancing , especially when you consider the age of the characters being played – Jack was 51 when Marilyn died.
When it comes down to it, Goodbye Norma Jeane works both as a glimpse into a Hollywood that is long gone and as a human story of a man, his work and his platonic love and affection for one of the true legends of that era. There is history, humour, human interest and some of the true greats of the age all put together in a great show that starts with a man waking up behind the sofa and ends with a present that could not be more perfect. What more can you ask for?
Review by Terry Eastham
Jack Cole taught Hollywood to dance.
Now he’s writing a weekly column for Dance Magazine. Or trying to. Young men splash and yell in his swimming pool outside, and as the afternoon wears on a parade of his former muses arrives at his front door – Betty Grable, Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth among them. And each is determined to have the last word.
Liam Burke’s fascinating and inventive play shines a spotlight on one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most influential gay heroes, and the actresses he helped transform into cinema’s brightest stars.
Goodbye Norma Jeane
by Liam Burke
directed by Robert McWhir
Choreographer: Carole Todd
16 March – 7 April