IF YOU take Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse, a small model of Charlie Chaplin, and three helium balloons, what do you get? When you have an imagination like Terry Johnson's, the answer - believe it or not - is the theory of relativity. This is one of many surreal elements in Insignificance: not only does Marilyn spout advanced physics, but Joe DiMaggio wrestles with problems of solipsism, McCarthy talks about Napoleon's crap, and Einstein gets the girl.
Johnson teases us by subverting preconceptions of both famous people and famous ideas, and shows us how little we understand of either of them. It would be all too easy to stumble into cliche and crass satire when dealing with figures who make the word "notorious" look inadequate, but aided by Johnson's excellent and entertaining script, director Loveday Ingram achieves the delicate balance of capitalising on each individual's fame while making subtle and touchingly funny points about their personal tragedies.
The setting is a New York hotel bedroom in the early 1950s, and the play opens with Einstein wallowing on his own in calculus at the start of an evening of several surprise visitors. In the Minerva Studio at Chichester Festival Theatre, Anthony Lamble's set draws you into the intimate atmosphere of the hotel room: the hum of street-noise drifting in unobtrusively through an open window, while the expanse of carpet stretches out so far it seems to be trying deliberately to bridge the divide between stage and audience.
It is part of the joke that none of the characters are named. Fame has taken care of that bit of administrative tedia, and instead we are presented with the spectacle of 20th-century icons communicating with each other by discussing ideas which turned into revolutions. Before everybody without a PhD mentally crosses this off their "must-see" list, don't worry: Johnson carries his learning lightly, and there are several great moments, such as Monroe asking Einstein to show her his legs once she has finished explaining the Special Theory of Relativity.
Besides, if you spend the play trying to get your head round the theory of Schrodinger's Cat, you've missed the point. The issue is not what the characters know, but what they do with their knowledge - and once you've spotted that Monroe (played with scorching vulnerability by Sharon Small) uses hers to beg for love and affection, while McCarthy (embodied with cynical solidity by Ron Cook) uses his to manipulate and subjugate, you're halfway there.
This is a wonderful evening out, full of dazzling verbal games, poignant moments, and great one-liners. Allan Corduner is a compellingly world- weary Einstein, and Martin Marquez an endearingly stupid DiMaggio. You emerge from the theatre feeling intellectually massaged, and emotionally entranced. Definitely a play to see more than once.
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