Audra McDonald makes her unaccountably long-awaited London theatrical debut in the most astonishing way possible in this devastating re-telling of the story of Billie Holiday. For 90 minutes she holds the audience in the palm of her hand in an arrestingly convincing, daringly exposed recreation of the persona, manners, voice and vision of the first lady of jazz, looking back over her life from the vantage point of her very last gig in an obscure bar in the town she was born and raised in, Philadelphia – home of the US constitution, for whatever that was worth if you were black and a woman and lived there between 1915 and 1959. Why it has taken 23 years to get from McDonald’s first leading role on Broadway (ground-breakingly in an ethnic-blind casting as Julie Jordan in Carousel) to arrive in London is anyone’s guess. Well, it’s the best guess of anyone in the know, shall we say, and quite a few people in the theatre last night might be said to approach that category: Cameron Macintosh; Nicholas Hytner; Michael Blakemore; Sir Ian McKellan; Noma Dumezwemi, and many, many more, in a glittering affair lending appropriate grandeur to this epochal event. You’ll have to ask them for what they may or may not have to say on the subject.
All I can report is how transfixing this performance is. Time seems to stop. We do not live through an hour and a half, but an entire lifetime, an entire age, and the whole experience of what it is to be of (mostly) African-American descent, and female, and gifted with a sensibility that perceives everything in life with a poetic intensity, and endowed with a soul that can forget through great suffering and reach out to find exquisite musical expression, and to have lived through that era of change, with a grandmother who had been a slave and to become, amongst other things, the first African-American vocalist with a white band, Artie Shaw’s, no less. No, not everyone warms – at first – to the miaowing voice of this working class Pennsylvanian. But when McDonald stands stock still downstage centre at the start of the show, in Mark Henderson’s effortlessly confident lighting, resplendent in her gardenia-white, floor-length, brocaded evening dress, the hair glossy and polished-looking, tied tightly up on her head and falling gorgeously down behind (costumes, Emilio Sosa; wig and special make-up effects, J Jared Janas and Rob Greene), and then she just hits you with ‘that’ sound in Buddy Johnson’s ‘I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone’, immediately following with Hanighen, Jenkins and Mercer’s ‘When A Woman Loves A Man’, and soon pushing on into Harry M Woods’ ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’, resistance is useless. She is taking no prisoners.
What ensues is a masterclass in how to hold a stage and fascinate an audience, all done with apparent booze-sozzled nonchalance. Yet there is not a second in this play that does not extend and develop our awareness of the character and involve us more closely in her life, feelings and thoughts. McDonald touches on just about every emotional note going – there is playfulness, there is violence (most telling for coming when least expected), there is comedy (with a tiny little dog, no less!), there is politics (the mimicking of a southern racist is hilariously acute and starkly realistic), and there is so very, very much more. There is America, all of it, laid out in front of us. There is the world of today, too, in a really rather unexpected way.
The realism of the setting – by Christopher Oram – lures us into feeling at home, especially with all the tables and chairs sprawling through the front stalls and across the stage itself; theme-park-like, we give ourselves over to accepting and opening ourselves to this world. And, without noticing it, the trap snaps shut. Suddenly, by enjoying the cabaret McDonald presents, we notice that everything she is saying is pretty much still current today, in the US, and here as well, and elsewhere. Where is the distance between the horrific narrative of the lynching in ‘Strange Fruit’ and the seemingly endless youtube parade of matter-of-fact, overwhelmingly uncontested police murders of unarmed African-Americans? Where is the distinction to be drawn between living and working conditions in Pre-Civil Rights America and, to pick one recent example, the wildly different fire safety regulations applied to London high-rises built for the rich and white and those tolerated in Grenfell Tower, and its many, many fire-trap relatives?
Lanie Robertson, who wrote this remarkably powerful play, has unleashed a monster of truthfulness onto the stage. His writing is always deft, never expositional, mastering the throw-away tone of the ingratiating nightclub turn with aplomb. And yet, there isn’t a single word that doesn’t jump out at us laden with sub-text and full of danger, desperation, joy and defiance. Lonny Price directs – as he did on Broadway – with unobtrusive brilliance; his control is so complete that we are unaware we are watching anything that is not entirely spontaneous and cooked up in the moment by those on that stage. But the pace, the timing, the coordination, the cohesion of all the elements never for one instant falters. The master of the great spectacles seen recently at the Coliseum is here every bit the supreme genius of the miniature.
Also, in addition to McDonald’s fabulous artistry – an uncanny recreation of the voice of Holiday that is at the same time a completely truthful performance, we get the first rate trio of Shelton Becton (at the piano and also MD, with a fair few lines to carry as well), with equally expert work by Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on Bass. This repertoire could not wish for more sympathetic interpreters. Every single song comes up fresh as a daisy, as if they had been written with only them as performers in mind. And Paul Groothuis’ silky sound design carries it all into our ears with sublime balance and naturalness: the roomy cavity of the theatre sounds just like Ronnie Scott’s.
So, was it worth the wait, Miss McDonald? We are so glad, so very glad, you are here and with this miracle of a show. Please, please, please, don’t stay away so long again?