I should start by saying I’m not a music aficionado, so this review is the honest opinion of your average 20-something who decided to see a one-woman musical performance with little to no prior knowledge of what it actually is.” Songs for Nobodies” celebrates five amazing singers: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas and while you may think it’s a tribute show, it’s rather… something else – something incredible and beautiful. The show was written for Australian Bernadette Robinson after she approached Joanna Murray-Smith (playwright) and Simon Phillips (director). This resulted in a solo play that not only showcasesRobinson’s extraordinary musical talent but also celebrates these amazing five artists that come from very different musical backgrounds. The show itself is a sort of snapshot into the lives of five “ordinary” women (the “nobodies”) whose lives were somehow altered by their encounters with the five extraordinary singers (the “somebodies”). Each scene tells the story of the woman who met one of the divas and includes some of their best-known songs. Overall, it’s a beautiful performance, humoristic at times, and tugging on your heartstrings on occasion – I can definitely see why it had such a success in Australia.
But let’s start with the setting. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Wilton’s Music Hall, but this was my first time there and I rather enjoyed walking around the building, from the pub downstairs to the lovely balcony where I was sitting. It’s not a huge room, but it seemed perfect for this. On the round stage, there were a few minimalistic pieces of furniture (a chair, a couple of cupboards and a drinks cabinet), which Robinson made use of during the performance with flowing ease. The live band was peeking from behind the curtain and the lights enhanced each individual scene. Apart from the slightly cramped seating, the venue was lovely and well suited for the hour and a half solo performance.
The first person we are introduced to is a lavatory attendant at the Carnegie Hall where Judy Garland performed in 1961. This makes it quickly obvious that Robinson is actually playing 10 different roles throughout the show; the 5 nobodies and the 5 somebodies, which makes her performance even more incredible. If I hadn’t read the program before the show, I could have easily believed the encounters actually happened, rather than being Murray-Smiths’ idea of using monologues to tell the stories of the characters she wrote. The interaction between the two characters was easy enough to follow, not least due to Robinson’s knack for changing attitude, voice, accent and demeanour at the drop of a hat. The scene ended with her performing “Come Rain or Come Shine” and this is where I have to take a break from praising the show. In my opinion, the band was a bit too loud, and at times even covered Robinson’s voice – not sure if the venue was too small, or whether it was just me, but I worried for a minute there I may not be able to hear most of the songs. Luckily, it seemed to get a bit better after that first song, but it still shadowed that otherwise entertaining moment.
Patsy Cline is the singer who helps an usher at the Soldiers and Sailors Hall gain more confidence – this happens the night before Patsy died in the plane crash. Robinson’s interpretation of “Crazy” was incredible, both vocally and as an interpretation.
My favourite was by far the third monologue, a Nottinghamian librarian’s story of her connection to Edith Piaf. Arguably, I was most familiar with Piaf’s work out of the five extraordinary women, but the tale was gripping and Robinson’s impression was on point. Her singing abilities impressed me (but again, I’m no expert so it may be that not all would be impressed – although the audience sure seemed to agree with me) and it almost felt as though she was channelling Piaf. The tale and the songs were beautiful and sad, more than adequate for this iconic artist.
In the fourth monologue, a reporter from the New York Times wants to interview Billie Holiday and use that in order to secure a promotion. I must admit I’m not very familiar with Billie, but I did enjoy Robinson’s performance as non-initiated blues amateur.
The finals story was, in my view, the least successful one – don’t get me wrong, the song was great and it felt like it was able to show everything Robinson’s voice is capable of. But the story of Maria Callas’ cruise aboard the Christina yacht was just not engaging enough and the character wasn’t brought to life as successfully as the previous ones. The nobody in this scene was an Irish teenager who was working as a nanny on board of the cruise, but I felt like the focus was not on the encounter between the two – if anything, there seemed to be more attention given to the men in the story (Callas’ husband and Ari Onassis, her paramour). The Irish accent Robinson adopted was amusing, albeit not very convincing, but her performance of “Vissi D’Arte” was incredible.
I think that the play was sophisticated, with a performer that had an incredible stage presence and who was able to keep us spellbound throughout the whole show (with no interval). I have no doubt it will be just as successful here in the UK as it is in Australia.
Writer: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Simon Phillips
Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Running until: 7th April