Insignificance, Arcola Theatre

18 October – 18 November, 2017

by Terry Johnson
Directed by David Mercatali

Photo by Alex Brenner

Photography by Alex Brenner (

Marilyn Monroe makes a surprise visit to Albert Einstein in a New York hotel room, each dogged by their celebrity and the pursuing figures of Joe DiMaggio and Joseph McCarthy. In the fame-obsessed nuclear age of the 1950s, the play places these four titans of their time in the same room, and we can only wait for the fallout.

You ache for the story to be true so badly it hurts.

Described as a bittersweet comedy, it certainly lives up to the title. The talented cast deliver Terry Johnson’s witty, often deeply touching dialogue wonderfully, and they’ve obviously done their research. The production is brought to life by the craft of the performances, who create a very real world with almost no suspension of disbelief required.

Alice Bailey Johnson nails her performance of Marilyn, capturing a remarkable truthfulness in the starlet’s passion, and vulnerability. It’s a reincarnation that brings allure, sexuality, brittle anger and deep pain. An incredibly magnetic performance.

Simon Rouse delivers a wonderful still, and slightly doddery charm as Einstein. Watching his crazy-haired shadow on the back wall was downright spooky sometimes, like a well-written séance.

Oliver Hembrough is a tremendous presence on stage, filling the room a alpha-male Joe DiMaggio swagger. He’s thuggish, and volatile, and completely hilarious. He’s an idiot who tries so hard to show that he’s not stupid, that his attempts to keep up with the rest of the characters, and his frustration at failing to do so, provide infectious moments of comedy as well as moments of heartfelt vulnerability. An utter contrast to Tom Mannion’s McCarthy, a fawning, slimy, chilling performance of the notorious senator.

They’re perfect historical characters to explore the isolation of fame and its true insignificance. Relativity, the Einstein theory of changes between the observed and observer is a clever connection, and the play contains some profound exploration on the nature of imagination, thoughts, and emotion. Solipsism, the belief that no one other than yourself exists, is an idea that makes an appearance in the play and sums up perfectly the entrapment felt by Monroe, the isolation of Einstein and DiMaggio, and the selfish cruelty expressed by MaCarthy.

The play is gracefully directed by David Mercatali, who has managed imbue the often static scenes with life and subtlety.

The sole problem I found with the production comes down more to my taste than anything. It feels like a portal in space-time has opened for you to see the events of the play, but the play then struggles to shrug off the sense of detachment that this creates. It’s a compelling and emotional piece of fly-on-the-wall theatre, but when we watch it, it feels like we’re doing so from a long, long way away. At its best it feels like you’re spying on something intimate, but on the whole the production closes the forth wall so completely that it shuts us out, and lacks an immediacy that I craved it to have.

So, maybe aim to book the front row seats?

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