Photo – Jeff Busby
One-woman shows are a tough gig, especially if they are as much musical as theatrical. The extraordinary Bernadette Robinson is not a household name, but should be if her performance in Songs for Nobodies is anything to go by.
The work was written especially for Robinson by playwright Joanna Murray-Smith to showcase Robinson’s incredible range as a singer. Under the direction of Simon Phillips, she proves to be just as diverse as an actor.
Songs for Nobodies is five separate monologues each featuring an ordinary woman and her encounter with a vocal legend. It’s a brilliant conceit that allows for both the musical diversity of cabaret and the gravitas of theatre. The overall result is satisfyingly complete and seamlessly integrated. Robinson is never less than fully in control of her characters – from St Louis usherette to Irish nanny, from Patsy Cline to Maria Callas.
At the heart of each dialogue are aspirations – aspirations to follow dreams, to understand the complexities of happiness and to make a mark in the world. Murray-Smith writes scenarios that humanize the famous singers and show the ordinary woman to be both reflective and gutsy. The journalist who wants off the fashion pages and into features gets her big break when her interview with Billie Holiday hits the crux of the singer’s sorrows. An English/French librarian tells of how Edith Piaf saved her father’s life and a bathroom attendant’s outlook is never the same after mending Judy Garland’s dress hem.
Within the space of minutes Robinson sets each scene with a change of accent – English, Irish, New York, southern USA – a different vocabulary of body language and a handful of basic props like a cigarette or teapot. She never leaves the stage and the most she changes costumes is to take on and off a jacket.
This simplicity and the streamlined set by Andrew Bailey is all that is needed. The narratives and music speak for themselves and allow Robinson the chance to work her range. From Strange Fruit to Crazy, from jazz to opera, she nails each style and then slips back into storytelling without missing a beat.
Songs for Nobodies premiered a year ago to rave reviews and this encore season runs a month before heading to Sydney. Its hype is deserved, as Robinson is a rarity. There are talented singers aplenty, but only the crème de la crème of performers can combine such detailed character work and vocal mastery and then sustain it consistently for a solid 90 minutes.
Songs for Nobodies will appeal to audiences regardless of familiarity with the songbirds, as its structure is complete and accessible on its own. At this rate there may be another encore run in the near future, but see it now while you have the chance.
A Melbourne Theatre Company production
SONGS FOR NOBODIES
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Simon Phillips
Produced by Harley Medcalf, Duet Entertainment
Venue: The Arts Centre Melbourne | Fairfax Studio
Dates: 21 December 2011 – 29 January 2012
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au | 1300 182 183 or visit the Arts Centre Box Office