Last Updated on 29th September 2019
Julian Eaves reviews Jessica Martin: A Life Under Lights at The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel, London.
Jessica Martin: A Life Under Lights
The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel
27th September 2019
There is a thing about cabaret: sometimes it’s just an entertaining string of songs, and other times it reaches out towards theatre. And this latest act from the ever-busy Jessica Martin – beautifully collaborating with pianist Inga Davis-Rutter and director Ben Stock – bridges the space in between in an ingeniously crafted way, taking us on a journey through the performer and artist’s five-decades-long career. In fact, we go back even further than that. Starting with the life of Martin, senior, her father, the bandleader Ido Martin, this show establishes the family’s roots in the great dance music tradition of the 1940s and 1950s, and through his life, and that of her equally dedicated mother, we get a picture of the world she arrived and grew up in and which has always remained important to her. This leads us into the work we know about in impressionism, musical theatre, TV and illustrating. It’s a brilliantly constructed and increasingly powerful experience that is packed full of delicious musical numbers threaded together with a fascinating and ultimately very emotionally involving narration. The show was a sell-out hit here when launched at the start of the month: now, it’s been brought back for an equally popular reprise, and further performances are likely, surely?
As if so often the case with this type of show, it is often the less well-known material that gets the best of it. Or, work which has somehow slipped from our attention and which needs the particular framing of this kind of production to remind us of its stand-out qualities. Thus, when Martin sings ‘Whatever Happened To Mabel?’ from ‘Mack and Mabel’ (a show which has – totally undeservedly – not yet quite managed to get the same kind of grip on the public’s imagination as many of Jerry Herman’s others), it is as if we are hearing, and seeing, it for the first time. Her understanding of pace is flawless; her articulation is full of surprises, all of which are absolutely right; and – above all else – her presentation of the character is full of human depth and complexity. Hearing the song sung like this, you find yourself sitting up in your chair, dazzled by the intricacy and vividness of the lyric – so aptly fitting the background and personality of the personality on display, and swept along by the dramatic energy of the melody and theatrical structure of the number. And you want to go and see the whole show, too.
Then again, Martin has few equals when it comes to impressions. As with all great impressionists, she gets under the skin of her target and seems to speak from within them. In an early number in the show, all about theatrical cliches, this virtuosity is coupled with another great aspect of her artistry: her ability to move between one perfectly expressed imitation to another, never missing a beat, and always exactly, precisely on point. The effect is as breath-taking as ever. It might be eyes-wide, blinking, and one word repeated, with a subtly flattened vowel at its heart, and then suddenly – like a flash of passing lightning – all of Bette Davis is there before us, striking at our hearts and stomachs like a lance. There is, you see, nothing ‘knowing’ about this ability of hers: it is really all very, very sincere and powerful. Martin does not waste her time on mimicry for its own sake; when she wants to represent somebody else, there’s a reason. These impressions are, for her, real characters who are every bit as worthy of loving creation as a part she might have to sustain for an entire evening in the theatre, or for longer in the television studio. That is the secret of her charm. We – instinctively – ‘feel’ this, and love it, long before we have any chance to think about it and consider. There isn’t time for that. She is rushing on to the next, and the next moment, always with the same pin-point accuracy and sparkle.
Equally, Martin is a hugely generous performer, and her objective is always to please not only the audience but also the people who she embraces in her work. So, when gorgeously rendering Shirley Bassey, for example, there is some caricature in the over-emphasis of the diva’s legendary mannerisms; but – and this is an important but – it is motivated by a sense of kindly admiration, like the Bill Hewison cartoons which used to adorn the reviews in Punch magazine. Martin is not a cruel or angry satirist like we expect to see in the newspapers: she is always humane, empathetic and has that wonderful capacity that children have, to use imitation as a means to gain a better understanding of the world and other people in it. She is, in fact, an actress practising her craft, just through other means. After all, some people are going to ‘get’ who she is doing, but there are audiences who are not as aware of the ‘source material’ who will see and hear this in a different way: they will get the ‘character’ she is performing at that moment, and be able to love the performance for what it is, without having to supply the ‘original’ reference themselves.
This is also another area of her artistic creativity: ever since she made exquisite theatre costume drawings and watercolours as a teenager, Jess has been making visual realisations of people in two dimensions as well as on stage and on-camera; she has exhibited her work at Orbital Comics and produced graphic novels. Davis-Rutter and she sat down together to work through the back catalogue of images she has made for her much-admired series on her idols, including great British, Hollywood and Broadway stars, and around these graphic ‘impressions’, built up the terrain to be explored in this show. The result is a densely woven quilt of people who have wrapped themselves around Martin and given her – and us – such warmth and comfort through years that have not always been kind. Far from being ‘escapist’, however, they are more like reminders of our essential humanity and capacity for goodness: a message that has lost none of its relevance or urgency today.
Well, we may be seeing this wonderfully made revue – it is so much more than just a cabaret – again, but in the meantime, you can book to see Martin in her new one-woman play about a fictional 1940s British film star, ‘You Thought I Was Dead, Didn’t You?’, written especially for her by Stephen Wyatt and directed by Sam Clemens at the Waterloo East Theatre, November 19th-22nd. Tickets available now.