Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 9 September 2017
A GREAT HEART AND TALENT, REMEMBERED WITH LOVE!
O my days! If you have any feeling for jazz and blues, for women, music or the historic trials and triumphs of black America, don’t think of missing this. Fight your way in. In ninety intense, absorbing minutes is distilled a troubled spirit and a half-century of change. As a performance it is unique, electric: as a tribute to a great performer it more than equals Tracie Bennett’s remarkable evocation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.
This time the subject is Billie Holiday, in the last year of her life: high and drunk and needing to tell her stories in the womblike, midnight world of a run-down Philadelphia jazz club. Tables are scattered on stage and in front of the stalls; the reality of the lamplit setting has a jazz trio playing moodily onstage before the start, with Neville Malcolm astonishing on the bass and Frankie Tontoh jokey and slick on the drums. It draws you into a world.
Audra McDonald is the real thing. As a singer of course: she catches Holiday’s strength and vulnerability, high moments, delicate phrasing and despairing growl. But equally her acting is shatteringly real: intense, sincere, witty, troubling. Lanie Robertson’s play is rather a marvel too: never a false note. It was written after hearing a friend’s account of a real day in 1959 when, at just such a club, washed-up and unreliable the Lady staggered in with her little dog and performed a handful of songs to half a dozen patrons. She did not have long to live with a weak heart, a heroin habit, a year in jail for possession, a long humiliation by the US colour bar, and a constantly refilled glass. But she was a legend. And the legend is served here with heart-stopping sincerity.
McDonald staggers, giggles, growls, but suddenly straightens, lets herself be carried by the music, a true Lady in white ballgown. She remembers the wonder of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, her mother “the duchess” at the cat-house, the no-good husband who got her onto heroin and her friend the sax player Prez who tried to get her off it. A hard wit condemns Philadelphia as a “ratsass” place , especially its white police who “after dey freed coloured people, dont know what to do with them, so dey lock us up again”. She jibes cheerfully at white people – “like us, only meaner” – but tearfully remembers how Artie Shaw’s white band would eat with her in the kitchen -paying double – when “coloureds” were not allowed in a restaurant, and how when refused use of the lavatory she took revenge.
She barracks her pianist Jimmy (Shelton Becton) as he visibly tries to coax her out of rambling and into each new number. There’s real tension in that: the drama (directed by Lonny Price with tight attention) rises with some flare of temper, evoking the real uncertainty of a failing maverick talent. Late in the show “Strange Fruit” carries real shock, as it always has done; but is followed by her vanishing offstage, awkward apologies and claims of medical problems from the pianist, and a sudden return of the diva, happily clutching a real chihuaha which licks her face as she belts out “T’aint nobody’s business”.
Go if you can. You’ll not forget it.