Bernadette Robinson

Bernadette RobinsonClearly audiences haven't had enough of Songs for Nobodies, the show written for Bernadette Robinson by Joanna Murray-Smith and based on the encounters of five fictional women with five famous singers: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas.

Songs for Nobodies is back for a third season, after its 2010 and 2011 sell-out tours and three nomination for the 2012 Helpmann awards: Robinson for best female actor (won by Cate Blanchett), Murray-Smith for best new Australian work and Simon Phillips for best direction of a play.

I saw it a year ago in Melbourne and was astounded by Robinson's performance. It is a tour de force, not just for her remarkable voice and versatile recreation of five disparate female singers, but a compelling story of the 'nobodies' who step into their lives, brought to life by Robinson's flair for accents and mimicry.

We're talking over coffee and raisin toast in Robinson's home town of Melbourne about how the show came together and how she creates such a magical performance. She took me back to the beginning.

"The inspiration came from seeing a snippet of Bombshells, which Joanna-Murray Smith created for Caroline O'Connor, directed by Simon Phillips for the Melbourne Theatre Company. I thought: that's what I want to do, something like that."

She performs regularly, with her husband Paul Noonan, at corporate gigs and travels all over the world for Qantas, wowing audiences with her ability to sing in the local language. When Robinson saw Phillips in the audience at one of her gigs (and he was obviously enjoying the show), she bit the bullet and contacted him. He was keen to showcase her talent as a singer and entertainer, but made it clear that, for the MTC, it had to be in the form of a play.

Robinson decided to approach Murray-Smith and dropped a handwritten letter into her mail-box. With Phillips's enthusiastic backing, discussions began. Robinson chose the five singers she wanted to portray, and Murray-Smith started by writing a dramatic scene between Judy Garland and a toilet attendant.

It took five more years for the second segment to be written. Murray-Smith was unsure how to frame the story and if Robinson would be able to act as well as she could sing. Finally she realised that the 'nobodies' had to be the stars of the show, and was so impressed with how Robinson, better known as a singer than an actor, could inhabit these characters and switch deftly between them that she later said, "I can't believe I hesitated."

I ask Robinson how she manages to switch between characters, accents, musical genres and vocal styles in this ninety-minute one-woman show and sustain the emotional power of the drama.

"Being such a mimic, it's just instinctive," she says. In workshops with Murray-Smith and Phillips she added her own interpretation of the script, fine-tuning the characters with appropriate accents. "I may not have a lot of experience in acting, but I'm a great mimic."

"I've been singing since I was in the cot, humming along to the TV." She went on to study under Dame Joan Hammond at the Victorian College of the Arts. "She was scary but sweet," says Robinson. "She loved me." While still at the VCA, she got a part in Cats, but soon became bored with that. Much later she saw the clip of Bombshells and found a format that suited her skills and her passions.

The first performances of Songs for Nobodies in 2010 were in Geelong. Robinson was terrified. "We were re-writing the script up to opening night. I felt like I was dying onstage, but it went down well." By the time they moved to the MTC, she started to relax. Standing ovations became the norm. Now the performance comes easily, but she still loves it. It is not time to move on yet, although plans are afoot for another show.

I ask her if Songs for Nobodies is still satisfying for her. "Oh yes," she says. "Head and shoulders above everything else I've done. It's beautifully written, the music is so powerful, and I love the audience's reaction."

It seems a talent for singing and mimicry runs in the family. Both her daughters are budding performers, and the elder, Isabella Noonan, who inherits her mother's talent for mimicry, made an impact this year with her comic role in Love Letters with the St Martin's Teen Ensemble. "Her accents are better than mine," says Robinson. "I'm a better singer, though."

Songs for Nobodies by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Simon Phillips opens at the Arts Centre Melbourne on January 2, 2013. Further details»

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