Thursday, 11 November 2010

Songs For Nobodies, Nov 11, 2010, ****1/2

Songs For Nobodies 
By Joanna Murray-Smith, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until Dec 23
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

Bernadette Robinson’s performance in Songs For Nobodies is theatrical alchemy.  She mysteriously and instantaneously transforms before our eyes into ten different women: five nobodies and five famously talented, damaged songstresses. She is remarkable and compelling, her singing is thrilling and her characters are diverse and sympathetic.

The deceptively simple structure of Joanna Murray-Smith’s script, directed with style by Simon Phillips, allows Robinson to people the stage with exceptional and ordinary women, and to perform songs that epitomise each singer. The collaboration between writer and performer is impeccable and Murray-Smith’s monologues create a complex, credible emotional landscape.

The five “somebodies” are Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Each chanteuse is accompanied by a “nobody” whose life she touched. Bea Appleton is a sweet, mousey, bathroom attendant, recently abandoned by her husband. In the bathroom of a ritzy restaurant, after Judy’s memorable 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, Bea mends Garland’s hem while Judy sings Come Rain or Come Shine to cheer her.

Pearl Avalon is an unassuming usher with a big voice. She meets Patsy Cline backstage on the night of her fatal plane crash and is invited to sing backing vocals for Cline’s final performance. An ageing librarian from Nottingham relates her French father’s escape from a German prison camp with Edith Piaf’s help. Her story is peppered with snatches of Piaf’s powerful, metallic voice singing L’Accordioniste and it ends with the spine-tingling Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

“Too-Junior Johnstone”, a young journalist, launches her career as a feature writer when she wrangles an interview with the languid, silent, drugged Billie Holiday. Robinson captures Holiday’s sultry, achingly sad tones in Strange Fruit and Lady Sings The Blues.

The final story is by young, Irish Orla, nanny to Aristotle Onassis’s children on the fateful Mediterranean cruise that began his affair with opera diva, Maria Callas. The delightful Orla knows her charms pale into insignificance when she hears Callas sing. The range, versatility and perfect control of Robinson’s voice are exemplified in her version of Puccini’s Vissi d’arte. The audience rose as one and applauded until their hands bled.

Robinson is mesmerising and a consummate performer with impeccable vocal skill and a riveting stage presence. Bravissima!

By Kate Herbert

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