Writer: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Simon Phillips
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
A chance encounter with celebrity is something that we’ve all dreamed of at some point; whether it’s coming face-to-face with a particular idol or enjoying our own 15 minutes of fame collecting that much deserved Oscar, Tony Award or being elected Prime Minister, we’re all encouraged to dream big. For a few those dreams of fame and fortune come true, but they also come at a price, as Joanna Murray-Smith’s new show Songs for Nobodies makes clear.
In five separate locations, in five different eras, five ordinary women recall a meaningful encounter with five of the twentieth century’s most famous female singers – Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. In the course of their jobs as toilet attendant, usher, librarian, fledgling journalist and nanny, each woman is at a turning point, yet to find the person she will become, and a celebrity meeting helps them on their way.
Murray-Smith’s script is delightfully varied, taking the audience across America, the UK and Europe in search of an elusive kind of happiness. Fame, they think, may be the answer but Murray-Smith instead paints celebrity as tragedy on a broad canvas, lonely, dependent, defeated women channelling their melancholy through their art – as the character of Billie Holiday rightly says ‘what do happy people sing about’?
Each character is distinctly drawn and performed with astounding versatility by a single actor, Bernadette Robinson, who richly recreates a varied collection of famous voices, while giving fully imagined life to the five everyday women they meet. Best among them is refined English librarian Edie Delamotte who relays her charged history with poise and grace while wondering, if circumstances were different, who else she might have been. With a tale of her French father’s daring escape from a PoW camp in World War II, aided by Edith Piaf, Robinson conveys all the restrained pain of Edie’s feeling of invisibility in a beautifully constructed monologue.
But Robinson brings equal colour to each of her ordinary women. There’s plenty of comedy in the sexier final story of nanny Orla being propositioned on Ari Onassis’ yacht as his lover Maria Callas sings into the night, as well as ambitious journalist “Too Junior” Jones’ interview with Billie Holiday who worries she took advantage of the weaker woman to advance her career. And the reflections of usherette turned backing singer Pearl who sang with Patsy Cline is a salutary lesson in adjusting your dreams and staying grounded.
The weakest story sees the fragile Beatrice, recently dumped and childless, sewing Judy Garland’s hem in the ladies’ room, and while Robinson vividly creates every scenario, it has the least substance, really just an excuse for Robinson to perform as Garland, which she does exceptionally. Throughout, the accuracy with which Robinson switches between these well-known voices is a high point of an impressive evening, easily capturing not just the differences in style and tone, but the deeply felt emotion of their performances.
Robinson’s performance is supported by Greg Arrowsmith, James Pritchar and Oliver Weston’s band who are equally skilled in creating 50s blues, 60s musical theatre, opera and country music, while Justin Nardella’s simple raked stage design comfortably stands in for an English living room, a star dressing room, a luxury yacht and sultry hotel bar. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design is evocative, spotlighting the showcase performances, while supporting the creation of atmosphere in the most incisive moments.
Songs for Nobodies is an inventive and engaging collection of stories about five single women finding strength and inspiration in a celebrity encounter. In the hands of Bernadette Robinson, Murray-Smith’s unusual combination of real lives and brilliant musical performance really sparkles. Being famous may be more complicated than we imagine, but Robinson has finally earned her moment in the sun.
Runs until: 7 April 2018 | Image: Nicholas Brittain