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Review of Insignificance by Terry Johnson at the Arcola Theatre

Insignificance - Alice Bailey Johnson and Oliver Hembrough, Arcola Theatre (courtesy of Alex Brenner)
Insignificance – Alice Bailey Johnson and Oliver Hembrough, Arcola Theatre (courtesy of Alex Brenner)

The thing about nameless characters in plays is that it can become difficult to feel any sort of connection with them as the show progresses. Here, in Insignificance, we have The Actress (Alice Bailey Johnson), The Professor (Simon Rouse), The Senator (Tom Mannion) and The Ball Player (Oliver Hembrough). Except there was no need to refer back to the press release to figure out these were meant to be Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) and Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999).

The script refers to this being set in a New York hotel room in 1953. In the play, The Ball Player is already married to The Actress, but (at the risk of indulging in pedantry with regards to the date of a meeting that never actually took place in real life), DiMaggio and Monroe did not marry until January 1954. Either way, it’s one of those plays that seems to throw the kitchen sink and then some at the narrative, and explores a large number of issues to some extent but not all of them with as much depth as they arguably deserve. It did feel as though some aspects of the dialogue could have been taken out altogether with little, if any, consequence to the main storyline and the ending of the play.

Most memorable is the demonstration of the theory of special relativity given by The Actress. It was animated, entertaining, and briskly-paced – in contrast to the speed of much of the rest of this production. Interestingly, if you care to look the theory up, it is explained in considerably simpler (and thus decipherable) terms on online encyclopaedias and other places than it is in the play.

The Actress’ prop-filled demonstration was difficult to follow – assuming, that is, a suspension of disbelief in which any prior knowledge of Einstein’s theories is set aside. It didn’t help that I struggled to see very much of the demonstration in any event from my back-row balcony vantage point. Then again, she is speaking to The Professor, more or less on his level, so perhaps one might actually expect to be somewhat bamboozled. And naturally, it was refreshing to see the blonde stereotype, perpetuated by Hollywood at that time, being subverted.

I must confess my heart sank somewhat when some supposedly sinister music suddenly accompanied the initial entrance of The Senator in the opening scene. Fortunately, such superfluous sound effects did not continue to permeate all the way through. All of the characters have personal reasons to be troubled, though some of the concerns are, if I may use the word, relative. The play was first performed in 1982 and not all of the punchlines have stood the 35-year test of time, and the punchlines were, for the most part, only mildly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny.

Some of what is discussed, however, remains relevant today. There’s nothing new, for example, about a public figure having security arrangements in place and being careful about venturing out of doors, particularly if unaccompanied. Political spin is perhaps even worse now than it was then. Certain topics of discussion, however, are rather banal. “Do you remember my first orgasm?” The Actress asks The Ball Player at one point. Elsewhere, there are some unsubtle references to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, though the end result for The Professor in Insignificance would appear to be altogether more positive than it was for The Crucible’s John Proctor.

It is Simon Rouse’s The Professor that I was most impressed by, with a certain understatement in the delivery of his lines that paradoxically increased their impact. Overall, however, there’s a lot of talking heads and the chit-chat reaches a level that makes this production feel considerably longer than it was.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

A professor, an actress, a baseball player and a senator walk into a hotel room. What happens next, didn’t. Or maybe it did. It certainly could have done – with a little imagination…

Written by two-time Olivier Award winner Terry Johnson, this hilarious and bittersweet comedy receives its first London revival in over 20 years, directed by David Mercatali (Cargo) who was nominated for the 2011 Evening Standard Outstanding Newcomer Award.

Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe grapple with fame, relativity and their personal lives (when they’re not being interrupted by Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy) in this dazzlingly inventive drama about the challenges of being known, and of knowing yourself.

Arcola Theatre
by Terry Johnson
Directed by David Mercatali


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