Note: The following review dates from July 2002 and this production's run at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, north London.
Eleanora Fagan was the original Lady Day. Growing up in Baltimore in the 1920s, listening to the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the Victrola, little did she know that she would grow up to be one of the most famous jazz singers of her time, Billie Holiday.
Set in March 1959, Lanie Robertson's play is rather like 'An Audience with Billie Holiday'. At the Emerson's Bar & Grill of the title, Billie is putting on a show with her sturdy accompanist Jimmy Powers. In between soulful songs, she amuses with tales from a colourful life. It wasn't easy - as she continually points out - for a black woman trying to make her way in segregated America. After her first job (running errands at Alice Dean's house of ill repute) became too much, she auditioned to be a dancer, but as she only knew two steps, the unimpressed pianist asked if she could sing. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Chris Crosswell's simple set is a darkened stage with only a neon sign, a piano and Holiday's trademark old-style mike. This, teamed with Alexandra Stafford's stark but effective lighting, a spot on Billie when she's singing, create the desired atmosphere.
As for the performances, while Dawn Hope's Holiday impression is only passable, she remains extremely watchable. Her Billie starts off bubbly and lively, but as the evening wears on, the protective outer layers are stripped away to reveal the tired, lonely, sick addict she's become - a stint in prison has left her a shadow of her former self. Warren Wills as Powers has electric fingers on the keyboard, but his interactions with the Lady are staid and wooden where they should be touching.
The direction here is a little obvious - Mark Clements, artistic director of the Derby Playhouse where the production was originally mounted in 2000, never seems to take the initiative. At the poignant ending, featuring an empty mike and a long blue note, I couldn't help thinking that if he'd been as imaginative throughout, it could have made for a much more compelling evening. As he wasn't, it just felt overlong and undramatic instead.