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Goodbye Norma Jeane review at Above the Stag, London – ‘enjoyable, but slight’

Tim English and Rachel Stanley in Goodbye Norma Jeane at Above the Stag, London. Photo: PBG Studios
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Jack Cole might not be the best remembered choreographer from Hollywood’s golden age, but he was an innovator in his day. He developed the ‘theatre dance’ style (based on classical ballet infused with jazz) and procured studio contracts for chorus dancers. He was also ambivalent about the term “choreographer”, preferring “dance director” – a term that fell out of use in the 1930s.

In Goodbye Norma Jeane, a new play by Liam Burke, Cole is still processing the death of his one-time protegee Marilyn Monroe while considering reconciling with his former assistant Gwen Verdon, who left him for a Broadway career and marriage to Bob Fosse.

Robert McWhir’s production, which takes place on Stewart J Charlesworth’s stylish monochrome apartment set, littered with empty bottles, moves briskly between the past and present.

As Cole, Tim English is believably worse-for-wear and Rachel Stanley makes the most of her series of cameos as the various Hollywood goddesses mentored by Cole, not all of whom were dancers. These walk-ons are all entertaining but the bitty structure means the production struggles to build up momentum. There’s also an interval that feels unnecessary when the running time is so short.

Marilyn Monroe has been endlessly mythologised and it’s difficult to approach her story afresh without it feeling cliched. The linking metaphor – Cole can’t own his dance steps just as Monroe’s image ceased to be her own – is affecting, though. But it could have been integrated into a more detailed exploration of Cole’s own life and his place in the history of dance.

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Enjoyable albeit slight biographical play about a forgotten dance innovator