Marilyn and Ella, Theatre Royal, Stratford, East London
The Living Unknown Soldier, Arcola Theatre, London


Black ambition, blonde power

True, it's not as counterintuitive a coupling as Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein (who are imagined trading insights about relativity in Terry Johnson's Insignificance), but Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald also seem an improbable pair.

The iconic sex goddess and the first lady of song are filed in separate compartments in the collective mental archive of popular history. Bonnie Greer was inspired to bring them together in her funny, stirring and warm-hearted play-with-music by a tiny item on a TV documentary about Monroe. It mentioned that Monroe had pulled strings and helped Fitzgerald to perform at the Mocambo, the biggest – and whites-only – club on the West Coast. She persuaded the management to break its own colour bar by promising to sit in the front row every night. "Marilyn Monroe was ahead of her time and she didn't even know it. I owe her a debt," said the singer.

Marilyn and Ella intriguingly points up the affinities and contrasts between these ladies – both misfits with abusive childhoods and forlorn ambitions (Fitzgerald longing to break into the movie world that Monroe, vainly courting the legitimate Broadway stage in the mid-Fifties, now despised).

They are beautifully played by Wendy Morgan, who goes way beyond caricature in her complex impersonation of Monroe, and Nicola Hughes, who brings a knockout voice and charismatic dignity and humour to the part of Fitzgerald.

Before the pair meet, the double-hander and Colin McFarlane's production feel bitty, the constant switches of focus on the split-level stage offering a witty but a little contrived crash course in Monroe's unsung credentials and the women's complementary predicaments. The drama and the musical numbers ignite once we reach the historic gig at the Mocambo, as Hughes tears the place apart with an inspired, scat-singing rendition of "Mack the Knife" and serenades Monroe with a tender private performance of "My Funny Valentine".

On the starlit roof of the club, they exchange moving home truths about the exploitation of black artists by white fans and the true basis of self-worth and beauty. After that, elation knows no bounds when the two, clad in campy matching gowns, let teasing rip as the gold-diggers from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The jazz trio, led by Warren Willis at the piano, play up a storm.

An arrestingly fresh angle on familiar territory is also granted in the new show at the Arcola, presented by the imaginative Simple8 company. It's usually taken for granted that an "unknown soldier" is a dead soldier. What, though, if a combatant were to return from the front physically alive but "unknown" in the sense of being mentally oblivious of his past life and his identity? Conceived by the director, Sebastian Armesto, and based on a book by the historian Jean-Yves Le Naour, The Living Unknown Soldier takes its cue from the true story of an amnesiac French soldier in a psychological limbo at the end of the Great War.

Languishing in an asylum, he is claimed by hundreds of French families as their missing relative for a variety of reasons ranging from the crudely financial to the painfully emotional. The eight-strong company endlessly role-swap as this piteous, largely silent figure sits centre stage and is bombarded by the jabber of competing allegations. It's a device that eloquently communicates how he becomes a blank screen on which the world projects its own priorities.

Tom Mison is dashingly droll as the journalist who turns the unknown soldier into a careerist campaign, and then, having shown no interest in the truth, comes close to identifying him. And Tony Guilfoyle is excellent as the doctor who looks after this patient through years that are chalked up like a prison sentence until, with bitter irony, the German army in the Second World War starve the soldier and his fellow inmates to death. Recommended.

'Marilyn and Ella', to 15 March (020-8534 0310); 'The Living Unknown Soldier', to 15 March (020-7503 1646)

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf