Photo – Jeff Busby
With the simple format of direct to audience monologue followed by song and blackout Joanna Murray-Smith has created a perfect vehicle for chanteuse Bernadette Robinson who creates an evocative and mesmerising atmosphere with her amazing gifts. Robinson's ability to sing like some of the most celebrated women of the past century matched with Murray-Smith's almost droll sensibilities are so entertaining it left the audience on their feet begging for more.
There was no more because Songs for Nobodies is a play, not a concert, yet the audience were so convinced by the production I think many were a little bewildered that none of the singers came back out to do one final number, especially Judy Garland, after all Garland was known for her long encores and willingness to please the audience while basking in the love.
This one woman show is quite brilliant. The simplicity of the production, the muted grey tones of the set and the subtle lighting contribute to our focus on the five characters who tell their story of brushing shoulders with at least one great songstress, or in the case of Edith Piaf, the personal letters and belongings of the woman as part of a lifelong ritual of gratitude.
The 'nobodies' of the title are the five women who tell us their story of how these singers have touched them, and in fact they reveal how they are not really nobodies at all in doing so, just like the audience members who stood up for Robinson are no longer nobodies once they willingly offer their energies and expectations to their favoured diva transform into something other than a nobody when they combine their adoration and attempt to affect change with it. They become a collective of fans, admirers who don't want the party to be over.
These women carefully crafted by Murray-Smith each have an anecdote to dine out on for life, so they are not really a 'nobody' at all, they are each a 'somebody' with an amazing tale to tell. The production reminded me very much of the Robert Patrick play 'Kennedy's Children' where a collection of recognisable stereotypical characters sit in a bar and individually reveal their personal story in monologue as they basically drown their sorrows. Each character in 'Kennedy's Children' directly reflects on some aspect of JFK's life or death, either an incident or an iconic figure associated with the assassinated president's lifetime. The main points of difference here are the musical elements and the fact that each different character in Songs for Nobodies is played by the same actor who has a gift for impersonation. In Songs for Nobodies the actor plays both the 'nobody' and the 'somebody' in such a seamless way it becomes hypnotic.
The transformative nature of live theatre and the emotionally rich element of song sometimes manage to blend in such a way that an audience is willing to suspend their disbelief beyond any rational boundaries – not only do they accept the anecdotal mimicking of the 'somebody' here, as the 'nobody' tells their story, but they become completely immersed while accepting the 'somebody' when she sings her signature song. The only other Australian cabaret performer I've seen do this as well as Robinson does is Paul Capsis. In the case of Capsis it is astonishing enough that he succeeds because he is a man. In this case with Robinson her physical size and shape certainly lends itself to Judy Garland and Edith Piaf; her well studied mannerisms as these two iconic singers immediately appear natural. The really transformative magic happens when Robinson plays Billie Holiday, Maria Callas and Patsy Cline. Robinson is just as alluring, just as natural and highly entertaining as each of them despite the reality of her own physical being compared to theirs.
The production is excellent on every level, the writing is concise, the characters are well played, the direction by Simon Phillips is invisible, nothing seems out of place or contrived which when you think about it is a mean feat. As a piece of Australian theatre it deserves long seasons and return seasons all around the country for as long as Robinson cares to keep it up.
Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2012
Songs for Nobodies
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Simon Phillips
Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide
Dates: 7 – 10 June 2012
Tickets: $59.90 – $39.90