REVIEW: Hot Lips and Cold War (London Theatre Workshop) ★★

A weak script, focussing on the lives of JFK, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, ungently punctuated with curiously forgettable ballads; this is the confused musical from Lizzie Freeborn that attempts to re-tell the story of America’s First Family 1962-63. However, the central narrative – the Kennedy marriage – is consistently undermined by (and eventually lost completely to) umpteen, and often-more-compelling, sub-plots.

Marcia Sommerford, shining in the role of Jackie Kennedy, was vocally strong and crafted a believable character opposite Robert Oliver in his unsympathetic portrayal of an irredeemable and womanising JFK. Maria (Sylvie Briggs) falls pregnant, following a fling with White House staffer, Davy (Adam Small), during the President’s official visit to Ireland, and uses her influence with the reluctant father to nab a job with Mrs Kennedy as official photographer. Living and working in the White House, without basic employment references, Maria is immediately tasked, by Jackie, with the sensitive job of taking a compromising photograph of her husband with Marilyn Monroe. Mrs Kennedy and the entire White House staff already know about the Kennedy-Monroe affair, indeed JFK himself confesses to it, making this plot line unclear and it is quite soon forgotten amid the din from the many unrelated sub-plots.

Vile racist, Jerome Kinsley, representing the southern states, is an influential political funder and backer, although his influence and presence in the Kennedy White House is a mystery (given ‘Jack’s’ notable support for the civil rights movement). Played by Ashley Knight, Jerome is little short of a pantomime villain; highly caricatured, animated, stereotypical and dressed as Colonel Sanders. Nevertheless, Knight’s portrayal is unforgiving and the audience is left seething with the views expressed by this monster of a happily bygone generation. Juxtaposing the venomous Kinsley; Grace (Florence Odumosy) is the Kennedy family maid and mother to Marvin (Jamal Franklin), White House odd-job man, gardener and occasional driver to the clearly frugal Kennedy administration. Grace is the mother you would want on your side; fiercely loyal, willing to argue your cause, topped off with lashings of sensible advice. Jamal, as Marvin, has a strong vocal range but is limited by the songs on offer, although he is clearly destined to be a leading performer in the West End. The relationship between mother and son is beautiful, and quite the tonic to the vitriol spewed by the curiously present Kinsley. With the play relying on stereotypical imagery and two-dimensional characterisation of Marilyn, Freya Tilly is left little room to make Miss Monroe her own.

The cast is strong but limited by the production, the script is sloppy in places and there can only be an assumption of poor research. Combining fiction and real events needs a careful approach, however the script is littered with off-the-cuff and misplaced remarks which refer to contemporary and future events that feel awkward and, to be brutal, crowbarred into the dialogue. The score feels repetitively dreary and does nothing to improve or add to the story. Deep down, somewhere in the script, there is the beginning of an idea for a play but the current production feels unfinished, unrefined and is suffering from want of attention to detail. Only the strong performances from Marcia Sommerford, Florence Odumosu and Jamal Franklin prevented a single star review.

Reviewed by Lee Knight


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