When an ordinary person meets someone famous, that meeting is probably soon forgotten by the celebrity whilst for the ordinary person they’ve met, it’s an anecdote they will tell for the rest of their lives even if the meeting is a fleeting one. That’s the basic premise for Songs For Nobodies, a one-woman show that opened in Melbourne in 2009, got its European premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall last year and has now made the transfer to the West End at the Ambassadors.
The one woman is Australian singer Bernadette Robinson who had the original idea for the show and got Joanna Murray-Smith to write it for her and Simon Phillips to direct both in Melbourne and London. Murray-Smith has built the ninety-minute show around five women who whilst feted and adored, lived sad, turbulent and in the cases of these five, fairly short lives. The five are Judy Garland (who died from a drug overdose when she was 47), Patsy Cline (a plane crash at 30), Edith Piaf (alcohol abuse at 47), Billie Holiday (alcohol and drug abuse at 44) and Maria Callas (heart failure probably brought on by overuse of sleeping pills at 53).
To link all these together, there are short five vignettes featuring the star’s contact with an ordinary person or as per the title “nobodies”. Garland meets “Beatrice Ethel Appleton” who’s a toilet attendant in a New York nightclub, Cline meets “Pearl Avalon” who’s a theatre usher in Kansas City, Holiday meets a newspaper reporter called “Too Junior Jones” and Callas meets “Orla McDonagh” who’s an Irish Nanny on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. However, “Edie Delamotte” doesn’t meet Piaf but tells the story about how the chanteuse helped Delamotte’s father escape from a prisoner of war camp in France, which is one of the flaws I found with the piece – why not write a scene where the two women meet as they do in the other vignettes?
Trained opera singer Robinson is a terrific performer – to quote Barry Humphries “Bernadette is a major talent and a spellbinder” and sings the obvious song choices superbly. As Garland she sings “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, Cline “Crazy”, Piaf “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, Holiday “Strange Fruit” and Callas “Vissi D’Arte” so no surprises there. She also portrays the five “nobodies” changing her accent without missing a beat; her Irish nanny is the stand-out. So, ten different voices (or is that eleven? – she also voices Onassis) in ninety minutes – it’s a real tour de force from the Australian.
She’s accompanied by three excellent musicians – Greg Arrowsmith on keyboards, Matthew Whittington on drums and Oliver Weston on saxophone, flute, clarinet and bass. So, with all that going for it, why didn’t I enjoy it as much as I might have? One of the problems is that the five situations all seemed a bit clichéd – we didn’t learn anything new about these troubled women. And whilst there was the occasional funny piece of dialogue, there was also quite a bit of pseudo-philosophy especially in the Garland scene which didn’t quite work. Another reason is that whilst Robinson sang superbly, I didn’t feel she quite nailed all the voices although her Piaf and Callas were spot-on.
However, judging by the wild standing ovation at the end, I was in the minority! So, I suggest you don’t take my word for it and get down to the Ambassadors and see for yourself – “Songs For Nobodies” could well be a show for everybody – maybe just not for this reviewer!
Review by Alan Fitter
Garry McQuinn for RGM Productions and Daniel Sparrow Productions in association with Bill Bowness, Robin Campbell, Ros Andrews and Andrew Buxton present:
Songs For Nobodies
Written by Joanna Murray Smith
Directed by Simon Phillips
Performed by Bernadette Robinson
This new play with songs is directed by Simon Phillips and features music from five iconic divas performed by the uniquely talented Australian singer and actor, Bernadette Robinson. Accompanied by live musicians, her miraculous voice shifts from the smoky blues of Billie Holiday to the thrilling soprano of Maria Callas, via Garland, Cline and Piaf. She breathes new life into the five legendary performers and the five ordinary women whose lives were changed by their brush with fame.
Booking Period: 9 January – 23 February 2019
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes (no interval)
At Ambassadors Theatre
West St, London WC2H 9ND