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Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (Wyndham's Theatre)

Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald stars as Billie Holiday in this play with songs from the singer's back catalogue

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If, like me, you have ever heard the six-time Tony Award-winning Audra McDonald sing in her own superb voice, it's likely that you may have approached the idea of her playing Billie Holiday with a little trepidation. The American's huge, buoyant operatic tones definitely don't immediately strike one as a fit for the sultry, mournful, quirky sound of Billie Holiday. But McDonald hasn't just won those Tony Awards for belting out musical theatre numbers, oh no. Here's a woman who can segue easily between straight acting, singing and dancing and is something of an expert in weaving a character together. That expertise is fully on show in her portrayal of the troubled Lady Day. McDonald's voice – as well as her body – buckles and bends, morphing into that of Holiday's. And it is gobsmacking to hear.

Billie Holiday fans rejoice, therefore. Here is an evening which will, at times, make you feel as though you are in the presence of the woman herself. Although that is both a sweet and bitter pill, as Lanie Robertson's play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill introduces us to the singer months before her untimely death.

Christopher Oram's brilliant hazy dive-bar designs transform Wyndham's into a Philly music joint in 1959 – literally Emerson's Bar & Grill. The front rows of the stalls have been taken out and replaced with cabaret tables, and there is a bar onstage, with seating for more of the audience. McDonald's Billie is in the sort of place she would relish – surrounded by punters as they hang off her every note.

The bitterness in Robertson's piece, is, of course, experienced through the tragedy of Holiday herself. A life-long drug and drink addict, Holiday was exploited by managers, boyfriends and husbands from the beginning to the end. Her early days revolved around an absent father, a prostitute mother and being sexually abused. She was in prison by the time she was 14 but that didn't crush her magnetic voice. She eventually rose to become one of the most legendary jazz talents ever, with songs which include "God Bless the Child", "Strange Fruit" and "T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do".

As McDonald first clomps unsteadily up onto the stage, having been introduced by her band master Jimmy Powers, it's clear she's a slight oddball. Perhaps, we think to ourselves, that's just what the real Billie is like. As the evening progresses, however, it becomes clearer and clearer that although this may be what the real Billie is like, she's like it because she is completely and utterly wrecked. She's funny at times, she has the charm of a true performer, but she's drinking hard and fast and getting more and more confused as the night goes on. The drinking, swearing and the rambling is interrupted only by the moments where Jimmy (played by Shelton Becton) manages to gently persuade her to sing. Those moments are like little rays of sunshine in a whole wealth of darkness. It's a painful watch.

Robertson's play isn't the smoothest or cleverest of scripts, and there is quite a bit of strong-arming in facts about Holiday's life which makes the show's rhythm far from smooth. But McDonald knows what she's doing and though the clunky writing does show, her delivery allows you to forgive it. With a head ranged slightly to the left and a slight hunch of the shoulders, McDonald encompasses all the singer's kooky mannerisms. Her voice has a thick, back-of-the-throat feel to it which is so uncanny. This is as close as you're going to get to hearing that sad, smoky, heaven-tinged sound for real.

The most remarkable moment of the play comes when McDonald sings Holiday's cold, harsh protest song "Strange Fruit". After telling a horrendous but surprisingly hilarious story of racism she experienced while on tour, she launches into the piece and it is so heart-wrenching and so despairing. This is not an easy night, but Holiday was not an easy woman and she definitely didn't have an easy life. But her talent was a gift and McDonald brings that to life beautifully here onstage, while also reminding us of some of the awful costs of fame.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs at Wyndham's Theatre, London until 9 September.