Theatre review: Songs For Nobodies

by **

Dear Dad

Songs For Nobodies is shrouded in the gloomy colour of grey. The tiny kitchenette on one side of the stage is grey; a number of stair-like platforms on the other side is grey. So is a feature wall that protrudes from the backdrop with jejune designs. Even the screen on which images of stars and snow are variously projected is the same drab hue.

Indeed, the five female nobodies portrayed in the play are all trudging through a grey period in their lives at the time of their encounter with five of the most famous female vocalists of the 20th century — each of whom, we know, had led an equally grey existence.

A toilet attendant is lamenting the betrayal of her husband when Judy Garland steps in and allows her to mend a fallen hem; an unrecognised singer is languishing as a theatre usherer when Patsy Clines catapults her onto stage —  the day of her fateful death; a lonely librarian is wistful of her late father’s sense of purpose when she recounts her annual pilgrimage to remember Edith Piaf who saved her then-teenage father imprisoned for joining the French resistance; an ambitious junior journalist is feeling frustrated with writing banal articles when she struggles to make the interview with Billie Holiday mean something; a nanny dreams of marrying into a life of luxury when she realises that that has not brought happiness for Maria Callas.

It is down to the sole performer, Bernadette Robinson, to colour over the grey. And, yes, she does so in spectacular fashion — but no, I don’t mean in the sartorial sense. For versatility, we see designer Andrew Bailey’s uncommittal choice of a contemporary black dress under a tailored jacket — this, Robinson occasionally removes or drapes over her shoulders, to distinguish between characters and scenes. We also see director Simon Phillips’ shading as Robinson is variously soused with tea, whiskey and cocktails. Still, it is Robinson who astounds the audience as the unsurpassed colourist.

With Kerry Saxby’s perceptible dropping of lights between stories, Robinson segues effortlessly from a convincing American twang to a crisp British accent, from flawless French to melodious Irish. But the evening truly breaks out in spellbinding magic when Robinson sings. The audience is swept away by her breathtaking rendition of each of the vocalists’ tunes; it is almost as if all five singers have been reincarnated in the one woman. From Judy Garland’s heartfelt Come Rain or Come Shine to Patsy Clines’ viscerally stirring Crazy, Edith Piaf’s scorching ballad of  Non, je ne regrette rien to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Robinson’s phenomenal performance culminates in Maria Callas’ Vissi d’arte — a grand finale that commands nothing less than a standing ovation.

Notably, too, the four-piece band, led by Ian McDonald, delivers handsomely. Softly illuminated behind a smoky screen each time they play, their presence and expressive sways create superb atmospherics.

Now, if Director Phillips had dreamt about this production and playwright Joanna Murray-Smith had allowed her pen to run away with it — his imagination — before seeking out the actor, Songs For Nobodies may have been stillborn; for few have a voice as dexterous, acting skills as fine and talents as incredibly diverse as Robinson does. In reality, Songs For Nobodies was hatched after Phillips was mesmerised by Robinson’s virtuosic vocals and commissioned Murray-Smith to write a production specially for her.

However, perhaps to showcase Robinson’s consummate prowess as fully as possible, Murray-Smith may have allowed her own proven creativity to be overshadowed. Short at 90 minutes, Songs For Nobodies is long on the number of vignettes —  depth of characterisation turns out to be the inevitable casualty. Nevertheless, Murray-Smith stands up to expectations with numerous memorable lines. While she seems to focus on lives of the nobodies, the stories of those famous somebodies have also been subtly brought out through her ingenious tapestry.

In the same way that songs and music breathe faith and hope into otherwise gloomy lives, in the same way that brief brushes with these famous women excite, inspire, intrigue and fascinate the nobodies, Robinson’s luminosity shines through the grey backdrop to engulf the unlikely milieu of Fairfax Studio in pyrotechnic colour.