Review: Songs For Nobodies (Wilton's Music Hall)
Bernadette Robinson stars as five iconic singers in this one-woman show by Joanna Murray-Smith
This spellbinding solo performance by Australian Bernadette Robinson, in which she doesn't so much impersonate as channel five iconic vocalists, is the stuff of legend, or at least it deserves to be. With her warm, expressive eyes, generous mouth and authoritative stage presence, Robinson bears more than a passing resemblance to Patti LuPone and she even takes on Maria Callas – a role LuPone performed to acclaim in Terence McNally's Masterclass here and on Broadway – in the last of five vignettes scripted by Joanna Murray-Smith.
We also get an uncanny Garland that threatens to out-Judy even Tracie Bennett's astounding performance in End Of The Rainbow, a wonderfully well-observed Patsy Cline, a heart-catching Piaf and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, a manifestation of Billie Holiday raw and exciting enough to rival Audra McDonald's Lady Day last year. The combination of Justin Teasdale and Tony Gayle's sound design with Wilton's' sometimes tricky acoustics give the vocals a slightly eerie, ghostly quality that feels appropriate to a show that conjures these dead divas out of the darkness for a fleeting moment.
The formula is straightforward: in each song-punctuated section Robinson plays an ordinary woman – the ‘Nobodies' of the title – who describes a point in her life when she came into contact with the Big Star, and finishes off with one of said star's signature numbers. If it sounds overly schematic, well perhaps it is but Murray-Smith's writing is punchy and sweet, and the stories, fanciful as they are, have real charm and satisfying emotional depth. This is the theatrical equivalent of a series of snapshots and there is little attempt to contextualise the musical legends beyond the effect they had on their respective ‘Nobodies'.
Robinson is a compelling actress (I particularly loved the uptight English librarian with the unexpected family link to Piaf) and an impressively accurate avatar of these iconic vocalists. It is a stunning performance.
The least successful section is the final one which casts Robinson as a garrulous Irish nanny at sea – literally – with Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. Although amusing, it lacks the heart and focus of its predecessors, possibly because Onassis rather than Callas is at the centre, and it's the only time when Robinson's accents are less than entirely convincing. However it does conclude with a spine-tingling rendition of Tosca's "Vissi D'Arte" that ends the whole show on an actual high note.
Justin Nardella's classy design is elegantly simple: a bare black disc for a stage, a few sticks of furniture and a band partially concealed behind a curtain that tapers away into the heavens, all lit with moody magic by Malcolm Rippeth. Director Simon Phillips knows that the star is the show here and ensures, rightly, that nothing diverts our attention away from her. This is very special.
Songs for Nobodies runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 7 April.