Soulful shot of morphine to banish the January blues
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