Wilton’s Music Hall, London – until 7 April 2018
Guest critic: Kudzanayi Chiwawa
If you’ve not been to Wilton’s, the oldest grand music hall in the world, it’s a wonderful treat. This tucked away venue is the stage for the European premiere of Songs For Nobodies, written by acclaimed playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips and performed by Bernadette Robinson.
The set is minimal, with live musicians visible behind the drapes, then Robinson lifts you out of this little place with her stratospheric voice. She plays five ordinary women and describes their fateful encounters with five iconic singers: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas.
“Happiness is ordinary misery without extraordinary fear,” observes Bea Appleton, a bathroom attendant at the Plaza Athenée in 1961, the night of Garland’s famous Carnegie Hall concert. She is the first of the five women we witness: Robinson portrays her as a creature reminiscent of the smallest of birds, while simultaneously conjuring Garland’s supreme voice.
Robinson will do much the same throughout, that is, transform completely. From a Kansas City usher to a clipped Nottingham librarian, a dogged New York journalist to lastly an Irish girl on board the Christina, a famous yacht owned by Ari Onassis, where Robinson as Maria Callas closes the night with an exalting performance of ‘Visi D’Arte’.
In the writing of Songs for Nobodies, Murray has invented singular anecdotes that grasp an entire life in a moment, without a heavy-handedness that condescends. Rather it elevates the serendipity of life lived. She illustrates the existence of these very ordinary women seemingly illuminated by their chance encounters – the eminence of these bygone icons, each one inadvertently altering a life.
Robinson’s performance is so minutely detailed, her changes between characters are nuanced yet fully felt, it’s all in the voices, and what voices she has. The audience not only gets to hear the incredible renditions of some of history’s greatest voices and pieces of music, but be drawn into these enormous little lives, making you wonder more at the ordinary women than the stars that changed them. It’s a stunning show. All of it really is thrilling to behold.