The Marilyn Conspiracy review – suspects and detectives convene for Monroe mystery

Marilyn Monroe died on 4 August 1962 from a “probable suicide”. But was it in fact foul play? And was Bobby Kennedy present that night? Who knows. The only certainty is that Monroe, in her afterlife, hovers on the astral plane – a vulnerable blonde bombshell whose death has been linked to conspiracy theories involving the CIA, the mafia and politically motivated assassination.

Writers Vicki McKellar and Guy Masterson blend a cocktail of facts with fiction, and an overarching theory that friends and associates of Monroe (Genevieve Gaunt) were part of a cover-up.

There is Monroe’s housekeeper Eunice (Sally Mortemore), who finds her unconscious; physician Dr Engelberg (Maurey Richards), who reports her death; and her shocked best friend, Pat Newcomb (Susie Amy). Others with less of an obvious reason for being there are present: Monroe’s therapist Ralph Greenson (David Calvitto); his wife, Hildi (Angela Bull); and, importantly, socialite and John F Kennedy’s sister Patricia Kennedy-Lawford (played heroically by understudy Natasha Colenso after McKellar, cast in the part, took ill) along with Peter Lawford (Declan Bennett), brother-in-law of the president.

Declan Bennett as Peter Lawford. Photograph: NUX Photography

Directed by Masterson, it plays out like a Hollywood homage spliced with a classic British drawing-room whodunnit as they convene in Sarah June Mills’ 1960s living-room set.

Scenes alternate between the hours before her death when she is in bath-robe and bare feet (albeit with immaculate red nails and lips), and a few days earlier when she is on the crest of a wave with a $2m studio contract.

The play turns into a thinly veiled exercise in airing the conspiracy theories and mysteries, characters variously sounding like suspects or detectives. Monroe’s affairs with John and Bobby Kennedy are mentioned. The latter has been violent towards her, we hear, and is scared she has incriminating information in a diary that Dr Greenson has encouraged her to keep. Monroe’s diaries, in real life, have revealed her fear of Lawford and he is a bullying figure here, orchestrating a cover-up of heinous male violence, sanctioned from the top.

Marilyn herself feels like an impersonation, breathless and volatile. She comes across as a spoilt child who plays with a stuffed toy and calls her therapist “shrinki”, her vulnerability not real or deep enough. Characters stew in repeated conspiracy theories, and it feels protracted. But the group dynamics show how people are bullied into collusion, and the theory that Monroe’s death was a result of naked male desire, power and control certainly lands.

The Guardian