Blues in the Night – Kiln Theatre, London

Creator and original director: Sheldon Epps

Director: Susie McKenna

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Not seen in London for 30 years, Sheldon Epps’ anthology of a couple of dozen or so blues songs, some very familiar, many not, gets a sizzling makeover that should lead to someone penning “The Why So Long? Blues”. Denied any running narrative and given only vaguely drawn characters, this revival relies for its success on its sense of time and place, four stellar leading performances and the enduring appeal of songs by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and others.

The setting is a run-down New Orleans hotel, the rooms of which inspire Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues. The Lady (Sharon D Clarke) runs the joint, showing maternal devotion to guests, The Woman (Debbie Kurup) and The Girl (Gemma Sutton), but disdain towards The Man (Clive Rowe). The Lady sits in her square room, puffing on cigarettes, while the two females sit in their rooms, also marked as squares, on the opposite side of the stage. There is a feeling of isolation, but also of community.

Robert Jones’ set design makes full use of the Kiln’s deep stage, scattering it with art deco lamps, and Neil Austin’s wonderfully evocative lighting transports us to a place where free-flowing Bourbon can drown an abundance of sorrows. In the hotel lobby, musical director Mark Dickman’s five piece band, plays virtually non-stop. There is no time for spoken words when there are blues to be sung.

“I ain’t gettin’ older, I’m gettin’ better” Clarke declares, hearing no dissent from the audience. The 2019 Olivier Award winner for Caroline, or Change is fitting in this production between Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic and its West End Transfer. Does this phenomenally talented performer ever take a holiday? Hopefully not!

The great skill in Epps’ creation, realised beautifully in Susie McKenna’s revival, is seen in how a compilation of songs about heartbreak, abandonment, loneliness, despair and so on is turned into a feel good entertainment. As performed here, the songs are laments only in part; more importantly, they become celebrations of the resilience of the human spirit. Injections of comedy also contribute greatly, as typified by the lighthearted bickering between The Lady and The Man. As one of Rowe’s ovations is dying down, Clarke growls “I can’t stand it!” adding resentfully “but he sure can sing”.

Running through August, Blues in the Night guarantees a scorching Summer for this part of north west London. The word “blues” has something to do with depression, a condition for which this joyous show is the perfect antidote.

Runs until 7 September 2019 | Image: Matt Humphrey

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One Comment

  1. Not seen in London for thirty years… other than pretty much the same production showing in Hackney Empire a few years ago.

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