Soul­ful shot of mor­phine to ban­ish the Jan­uary blues

The Daily Telegraph - - Arts - By Do­minic Cavendish

Theatre Songs for No­bod­ies Am­bas­sadors Theatre

You’ve got the Jan­uary blues? Well, this ter­rific one-woman show is one way to ban­ish them. Bernadette Robin­son’s ar­rest­ing con­coc­tion gives us five fic­tional en­coun­ters with fa­mous “di­vas” and splices them with mu­sic that’ll thrill you to the bones. It’s de­bat­able whether even this war­rants the £75 top price at Lon­don’s Am­bas­sadors Theatre, but there’s no doubt that the Aus­tralian ac­tress, who first per­formed Songs for No­bod­ies in Lon­don at Wilton’s Mu­sic Hall last March, sings for her sup­per sev­eral times over.

The script, by Joanna Mur­ray­smith, cuts straight into ob­ser­va­tions so nakedly wist­ful that they’re al­most com­i­cal. “Hap­pi­ness is the tem­po­rary il­lu­sion that noth­ing is about to change for the worse,” qua­vers a jit­tery crea­ture called Bea Ap­ple­ton. It’s 1961, and she’s a 36-year-old re­stroom at­ten­dant at New York’s Plaza Athénée ho­tel, reel­ing from her hus­band’s de­par­ture.

Who should walk in, on this April night, but Judy Gar­land, flushed from her leg­endary Carnegie Hall con­cert, a fig­ure of glam­our and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The hem of the star’s dress needs fix­ing, so Bea whips out a nee­dle and thread, and across the gulf be­tween celebrity and nonen­tity there un­spools a line of mu­tual com­pas­sion.

What might sound like bunkum is re­deemed by an un­der­ly­ing truth: the tini­est ges­tures of sol­i­dar­ity can be life-sav­ing in times of deep­est anx­i­ety. When Gar­land breaks into song, the jaun­tily restora­tive Come Rain or Come Shine, the mood-al­ter­ing ma­noeu­vre doesn’t grind; in­stead, it fills the au­di­to­rium with grace, achiev­ing a col­lec­tive re­lease. Mean­while, Robin­son’s deft shape-shift­ing af­firms how much we carry within us – pain and po­ten­tial, the peo­ple we might have been – while her soul­ful vo­cals lift her ren­di­tion above mere mimicry.

Di­rected by Si­mon Phillips, it’s spell­bind­ing stuff: the set has min­i­mal fuss, the light­ing has max­i­mum im­pact and the three-piece band is pip­ing hot. Robin­son works her magic across all 90 min­utes, too, bring­ing to life thea pa­rade of di­vas. There’s Patsy Cline, en­coun­tered near the hour of her death by an usher at Kansas City’s Me­mo­rial Hall; Edith Piaf, evoked to per­fec­tion in the rev­erie of a curt Not­ting­hamshire li­brar­ian; and Bil­lie Hol­i­day, thaw­ing in the pres­ence of a pam­pered young jour­nal­ist and trans­fix­ing us with a triple-whammy of blues mas­ter­pieces.

The fi­nal con­tri­bu­tion comes from Maria Cal­las, con­jured not di­rectly but as a voice in the night, when a young Ir­ish nanny faces an in­de­cent pro­posal from Aris­to­tle Onas­sis aboard his yacht Christina. We hear the aria

Vissi d’arte from Tosca, a cry from the depths for di­vine suc­cour. It’s so sub­lime, it’s like a shot of mor­phine; for a bliss­ful few min­utes, all the cares of the world are gone.

Some­body spe­cial: Bernadette Robin­son in Songs for No­bod­ies

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