Tim Hochstrasser reviews Dazzling Divas featuring Issy van Randwyck at The Mill At Sonning.
The Mill at Sonning
The Mill website
Issy van Randwyck has brought her one-woman tribute show to the charming surroundings of the Mill at Sonning until the end of the month. She explores the lives, songs and legacies of Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline, Janis Joplin., Karen Carpenter, Mama Cass and Dusty Springfield accompanied by a band of four superb instrumentalists with the set of the Mill’s most recent production – ‘Gypsy’ – as back-drop.
The first thing to say is that this as a package this is a quality entertainment, amiably and excellently designed for a lazy and leisurely summer evening. After an excellently varied buffet meal upstairs with delightful views over the mill stream, and the original millwheel turning still below, as it has in some shape or form since Domesday Book, you can suspend time in a different way by entering the lives and imaginative worlds of seven of the most significant post-war divas. Clearly, for many of the audience, it was and is a journey into the intersection between a personal world of memory and the moment these songs and singers came into their own lives. That indeed is the power of the tribute act at its best.
But within the warm embrace of the evening itself, there are elements of the show that work better than others. There is always a delicate balance within tribute shows between celebration and sentimentality, between performance and patter, between insightful illumination and recycling the obvious and familiar. It is a balance that is not always in place here.
Rightly Randwyck does not try to offer impersonation and instead offers evocation. In the case of Marilyn, Janis and Dusty this reviewer felt that this approach worked well. Many of the observations and insights were revealing, and the choice of less familiar songs kept things fresh. But in some of the other choices much of the information was very well-known, and the interruption of songs with another burst of biography became frustrating. It was almost as though the singer-narrator was trying to do too much on behalf of her subjects rather than letting their emotionally eloquent materials speak for them. Less sometimes would have been more.
The approach was broadly chronological, which was the obvious but perhaps not the best way to approach the material. Starting with Billy Holiday raised a number of questions, not least current sensitivities towards tribute performances across racial boundaries, which might have proved problematic in a London venue. Perhaps beginning with a performer such as Doris Day might have worked better as a way into the material before then engaging with the uniquely oppressive personal and political challenges that particularly affected black performers such as Holiday and Fitzgerald.
Randwyck has a good vocal range and a fine palette of expressive acting skills. While she used a few significant props and items of costume, most of the projection of personality came from within. She avoided personal anecdotes and did not seek to break down the fourth wall until the very end, which seemed appropriately respectful. She always remained a vehicle for those she sought to evoke rather than the centre of attention in her own right, which is surely as it should be.
Another real plus was the quality of the playing around her. The band was expertly led by Corin Buckeridge, sometimes playing piano and electronic keyboard simultaneously. Alongside Oz Dechaine on bass and Gerry Berkeley on drums, he gave the singer just the right level of support in stylish arrangements that captured the style of each singer precisely. Edward Hall, who also directed, provided some notable interventions too on acoustic guitar. This reviewer would have welcomed more from the band – a purely instrumental medley of the ‘greatest hits of each of the divas, would have given Randwyck a bit of a break and removed the need for a verbal checklist of their main achievements.
Despite these mostly minor reservations this is a hugely rewarding evening and one to be recommended. It is a wonderful wallow in nostalgic creativity to be sure, but it also has a much more serious purpose behind it. For at every point the evening reminds us both how multi-talented each of these divas was over and above their work in concert hall and studio, and how much abuse, condescension and neglect they had to confront within the mostly male profession that claimed to extol them. Perhaps the most valuable human insight overall was the sense of what these remarkable women had to overcome in their daily lives before they could even begin to confront the professional and technical obstacles in everyday performances.
Dazzling Divas Until 29th July 2023