Jennifer Christie reviews Bernadette Robinson in Songs For Nobodies now playing at London’s Ambassadors Theatre.
Songs for Nobodies
10 January 2019
“…people are always talkin’ about dreams. You can be your dream. You can have your dream. You can live the dream. But that’s just a clever way of gettin’ people to shut up and stop complainin’.”
Joanna Murray-Smith wrote Songs for Nobodies as a dramatic vehicle for Bernadette Robinson, an Australian performer with an extraordinary voice. Directed by Simon Phillips, the play was originally produced at the Melbourne Theatre Company. It played to packed houses around Australia before the European premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2018 and has now transferred to the West End for a season at the Ambassadors Theatre.
The Ambassadors Theatre is a good fit for this one-woman show with the proportions of the space allowing for an intimate dualogue between the performer and the audience. It’s a magical production that amalgamates the many elements of theatre in a show that is bigger than the sum of its individual elements.
The central jewel of Songs for Nobodies is the remarkable talent of Bernadette Robinson whose singing technique is honed to perfection. Robinson presents five divas from different musical styles and eras. The songs themselves are almost secondary to the narratives. Cutting observations and witticisms are all delivered with sparkle and panache. Robinson skips between the characters effortlessly, drawing in her audience to hold them rapt throughout.
Songs for Nobodies is structured in one act of ninety minutes containing five separate narratives. Each story is introduced by a ‘nobody’: an anonymous woman who dwells in the lower stratospheres. Their lives are touched by celebrity for fifteen minutes or a few hours or across a generation in the case of Piaf. Each diva sings a song for the nobody who feels it directed to only them but which captures the essence of the star for everyone.
Of the five narratives the story of a Nottingham librarian, Edie Delamotte is the most poignant. Her story tells how Edith Piaf saves the life of Papa Delamotte in Nazi Germany and how Edie pays homage every year. This segment contains the classic Non, Je Regrette Rien, sung with authenticity and deep emotion.
Robinson is backed by a three-piece band under the direction of onstage pianist Greg Arrowsmith. Matthew Whittington on percussion plays a slew of instruments including bongos and some mellow vibes. In the Billie Holiday section, Oliver Weston features on saxophone in a duet with Robinson. It is a highlight in the production and further enhanced by the sound design of Justin Teasdale and Tony Gayle.
The diversity of the multiple story lines demands a sympathetic design. The dark stage design by Justin Nardella appears deceptively simple but provides Robinson with a versatile space on which to drape herself. The design is evocatively played with by lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, enveloping Robinson in a visual palette of support.
From the opening state of a tight spot outlining the star, to the silhouetted perfection of Judy Garland and the centre stage golden splendour of Callas the lighting defines the characters and mood. There is a beautiful moment in the Billie Holiday segment when cigarette smoke is caught in a single beam of light that escalates as the lady sings the Blues and the light turns blue.
The final ‘nobody’ is a young Irish girl, Orla McDonagh who takes a job on the Onassis yacht, Christina. Bringing Orla into the world of the rich and famous ‘somebodies’ she ponders ‘Who might I be if I were somebody?’ The answer is seemingly provided by the superb Robinson as Maria Callas singing Puccini’s ‘Vissi D’arte’.
The words of this aria reflect the often troubled lives of the world’s ‘somebodies’:
‘I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?’
As the final note of this emotional plea echoes within the Ambassadors Theatre the capacity audience rises to its feet in joint acclaim.