By Taylor Kendal
It is impossible to deny the impact that music has on a person; how it captivates, how it comforts and soothes a broken soul, and plays the soundtrack to every major moment in our lives. In many cases, it’s not just the music that does this, but the voices that provide them, and the people who use their abilities of storytelling through song to connect to us through the music. Stories are told through the music and lyrics, about the artist’s lives, some of which we get to catch glimpses of ourselves. But what about the stories of those out of the spotlight, those interactions with the music that shapes pivotal moments in their lives? Do we ever hear about them?
Songs for Nobodies is a stunning one woman performance created by renowned Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, and written for and performed spellbindingly by Bernadette Robinson, who brings the show back home to Australia after an acclaimed sell out season in London’s West End. Accompanied by a stunning band, it is a whirlwind of spectacular feat and touching stories that truly resonate with the soul.
First staged ten years ago, this 90 minute tour de force brings together five of music’s greatest divas of the mid 20th century; Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas. Such a diverse range of performers, all neatly packaged into one performance. Alongside them, are five ordinary women, the titular ‘nobodies’. But what makes someone a nobody? Is it simply because they’re not famous? That does not mean that their stories shouldn’t be told, a fact that is expertly conveyed by Robinson in one of the most unique and captivating performances.
Broken up in short vignettes, the audience is introduced to five very different women: a ladies washroom attendant going through a divorce who meets Judy Garland on the night of her Carnegie Hall performance; a theatre usher who sings backup vocals for Patsy Cline the night she died; an English librarian who dreams of the stars and owes her very existence to the great Edith Piaf; a New York City journalist who has the chance of a lifetime to interview the great Billie Holiday; and an Irish Nanny, who witnesses the great love affair of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Each has an encounter of sorts with one of the famous divas, and in some way, directly or through music or a moment of convenience, and it plays a part in shaping their lives for the better. Interwoven with the lives of these ‘nobodies’ are some of the diva’s greatest hits, from Garland’s rendition of Come Rain or Come Shine, complete with the most stunningly realistic portrayal of the star’s mannerisms, her voice and of course, her iconic vocals, since the late great herself; the heartbreaking and haunting Crazy by Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf’s signature Non, je ne regrette rien, Lady Sings the Blues by Lady Day, and a stunning aria as tribute to Maria Callas.
It seems a rather daunting task, taking in five of the biggest names in entertainment history, all so vastly different than the other. The idea of one woman being able to capture the essence of the likes of Judy Garland, then do the same to Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday seems farfetched and a little impossible perhaps to some. Showtunes, Country, Jazz and Opera, all such distinctive styles from very distinctive voices. Yet Robinson does it with the most simplest and seemingly effortless ease, a skill that must be applauded in every sense. With the most stunning vocal range, able to inhibit the spirit of all five incredibly different and versatile performers, the ability to mimic their voice, their talking patterns, their body language and the way they capture the audience in their own special way, simply proves that she is a virtuoso performer, and her vocal, acting and impersonation skills are awe inspiring. To watch the seamless transitions, thanks to flawless direction by Simon Phillips, is mesmerising, as Robinson barely takes a breath before slipping into the life of the next character. It was so beautifully manoeuvred, that at times it was so easy to forget that this was the same woman, despite the only thing changing was a small prop, such as a tea cup or a glass of scotch and a cigarette.
Songs for Nobodies is running at Arts Centre Melbourne until January 5th, and is one exceptional piece of Australian Created artistry that should not be missed. Besides, who would turn down an evening with some of the world’s greatest performers, Bernadette Robinson very much included.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.