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Review of Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre

Debbie Kurup (The Woman), Sharon D Clarke (The Lady), Gemma Sutton (The Girl). Credit Matt Humphrey.
Debbie Kurup (The Woman), Sharon D Clarke (The Lady), Gemma Sutton (The Girl). Credit Matt Humphrey.

Mark Dickman at the piano leads a five-piece band, called ‘Oscar and The Strollers’, through twenty-seven musical numbers in Blues in the Night, more of a revue than a musical. There is some dialogue, but not a huge amount, and if you’re after those things called ‘plot’ and ‘character development’, then frankly your evening (or indeed matinee) is best spent elsewhere. All that can be deduced in terms of time and place purely by what one sees and hears on stage is that there’s a large neon sign with ‘hotel’ written in capital letters, and judging by the style of the music, it is presumably set around the time of the 1941 motion picture of the same name (that is, Blues in the Night).

It is sometimes said of country music songs that if the lyrics were sung in reverse chronological order, the singer would get their house back, their dog back, their best friend back, their partner back, and their truck, pond and lawn back. Similar sentiments could be expressed for blues music, and as the show progresses there is an increasingly palpable feeling of cumulative depression and self-pity at the position in life these people find themselves in. The Lady (Sharon D Clarke), The Woman (Debbie Kurup) and The Girl (Gemma Sutton) sing remarkably well, both as soloists and harmonising as a trio.

But their interaction between one another is limited, and it takes The Lady to insist that the other two join her downstage before they do so much as acknowledge one another’s presence. The Man (Clive Rowe) appears to be a womaniser, and completing the cast are The Hustler (Aston New) and The Barman (Joseph Poulton) – I didn’t think the audience saw or heard enough of the latter two. To get maximum enjoyment of this production, one would need to have at least a cursory interest in torch songs and blues music: there really isn’t anything else on offer.

This has the advantage of keeping the production focused, albeit relentlessly so. The choreography (Frank Thompson) makes good use of the available stage space and is always appropriate to the song and its tempo and content. Everyone – and I mean everyone – sings beautifully, and while it is therefore difficult to pick out stand-outs, Clarke’s rendering of ‘Kitchen Man’ brought the house down, while her ‘Wasted Life Blues’ was particularly engaging. “What will become of poor me?” she almost wails.

It’s never dull, but even so: I never would have thought unhappiness could sound so heartfelt – these songs don’t wail at the world at how unjust it is on a macro level. Instead, the songs tell rather personal stories. It all took some getting used to – your reviewer is more used to the joys (literally and figuratively) of musical theatre. The show ends rather more abruptly than most productions do, although the curtain call is very warm, introducing each band member by name. I may as well repeat it here: aside from Dickman as musical director, there is Stuart Brooks on trumpet, Horace Cardew on saxophone, Rachel Espeute on double bass and Shaney Forbes on drums. There’s charm in places, sassiness in others.

The production goes well with the feelings of fear, or at least apprehension, that some may feel, given the political climate in Britain at the time of writing. And these songs express strong sentiments with passion and intelligence. Live blues music at its finest, the musical numbers often speak for themselves in this slick and full-bodied production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A man is a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing, the blues in the night.
The Olivier and Tony Award-nominated musical sees its first major London revival in 30 years. Directed by Susie McKenna and starring Olivier Award-winner Sharon D Clarke (Caroline or Change, Ghost, Amen Corner), Debbie Kurup (Sweet Charity, The Girl From the North Country) Olivier Award-winner Clive Rowe (Guys and Dolls, Carousel) and Gemma Sutton (Follies, The Rink), Blues in the Night is a scorching compilation of 26 hot and torchy blues numbers that frame the lives and loves of four residents of a downtown hotel. Featuring soul-filled songs by blues and jazz icons Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and many more, this will be a sizzling night to remember.

Everyone should see the show as it is a feast for the eyes and ears. Along with beautiful music and the live five-piece band, there is great choreography by Frank Thompson, lighting, costumes and set that will make the audience feel like they’ve stepped into the 1930s and they can share with us on stage just how glorious, moving and rip-roaring these brilliant Jazz and Blues songs are.Interview with Gemma Sutton.

Susie McKenna directs Sharon D Clarke (The Lady), Debbie Kurup (The Woman), Clive Rowe (The Man) and Gemma Sutton (The Girl) in the first major London revival in 30 years.

Performed by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited.

Blues In The Night
Kiln Theatre
Booking to 7th September 2019


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