BWW Review: SONGS FOR NOBODIES, Wilton's Music Hall
Straight away, we're into a story about a "nobody" fixing Judy Garland's hemline in a New York restroom, the superstar with issues offering an ear and some gentle advice to the thirtysomething attendant suddenly alone after her husband walked out.
It's the first of five such scenes - all monologues leavened with bittersweet reflections on life's ups and downs (though more of the latter than the former), with wit for laughs and wisdom for reflection. Joanna Murray-Smith is the kind of writer whose characters would be described as "leaping off the page" in short stories, because we've all met women like these and we've all felt emotions like theirs - not so much "nobodies" as "every(wo)men" .
But, with much credit going to director Simon Phillips and lighting designer, Malcolm Rippeth, there's no need to conjure the theatre usher with the singing pipes, the Nottingham spinster paying biannual homage to a French icon, the ambitious journalist chiselling quotes from the jazz singer, nor the Irish nanny catching Aristotle Onassis's roving eye - because Bernadette Robinson brings them to life right here, right now.
If Robinson's acting impresses (and that pitch perfect Anglo-French librarian is so skilfully drawn that I expected to meet her outside having a sly cigarette), it's her singing that gives the show its unique appeal. The songs underpin and deepen the stories, delivered at the end of the narratives, but absolutely central to each character arc. Sure, a cabaret style would work for this consummate singer, but this show is a play (albeit in five unrelated scenes) with the songs integrated into its overarching themes of empowerment and self-realisation.
After her "Judy", one thinks "Well, anyone can do a Judy or a Liza, and it's good, but can she do the others?" An hour or so later, you get an emphatic "Yes" as an answer.
"Crazy" is loaded with pathos as Patsy Cline fatally refuses the offer of a car in favour of a plane to rush home to see her kids. Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" answers the question that haunts a post-war generation - what if my father had not survived? "Ain't nobody's business" captures Billie Holiday's lesson in being true to oneself, warts and all. Callas's "Vissi D'Arte" does... well, it does Puccini, and that's more than enough.
Robinson is a tour-de-force, her vocals more than a match for a venue full of character but a challenge in terms of its acoustics, Greg Arrowsmith's three piece band an excellent support. Curiously delivered all-through in 90 minutes (surely we could be offered an interval and a break from crouching in the tightly packed, hard chairs), the show makes for a spellbinding evening of unabashedly sophisticated entertainment - Songs For Nobodies is a treat for anyone!
Photo - Nicholas Brittain.