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»



Most read features

Zuleika Khan

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews, Artists in Isolation, our first guest is cabaret superstar and front-line worker Zuleika Khan who shares her experiences as a theatre maker stuck in isolation and a nurse protecting the community.

Kearna Philpott

This week, Heather Bloom chats to professional dancer, Kearna Philpott who was on board the RCCL Spectrum of the Seas when the pandemic began.

Jake Matricardi

This week Heather Bloom chats to Jake Matricardi, an usher for the Marriner Group on his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis unfolding in the theatre world.

Petra Kalive

After five years as Artistic Director of Union House Theatre, Petra Kalive joined Australia’s oldest professional theatre company in early 2020 having previously directed BeachedMelbourne Talam and Hungry Ghosts for the Company.

James Zala

As we continue our series investigating how artists and the arts industry is coping throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I travel (virtually of course) to the UK and speak with Flying Director James Zala from Flying by Foy.

Most read news

Cirque du Soleil postpones Melbourne performances

Cirque du Soleil has decided to postpone Melbourne performances of its show KURIOS until 15 April, 2020

Adelaide Festival Centre COVID-19 update

Following the declaration of a Public Health Emergency in South Australia, Adelaide Festival Centre venues will close to the public and all performances will be suspended from midnight until the 30th of April.

Theatre Works to Close Until May

In response to the unfolding health situation, Theatre Works have made the difficult but necessary decision to temporarily close our venue until 1 May.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2020 cancelled

Scheduled to be programmed this winter, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF) in its current form will be cancelled in response to ongoing developments regarding the threat of COVID-19.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour cancelled

Opera Australia has regretfully cancelled the upcoming Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, La Traviata, in line with the government ban on static public gatherings of more than 500 people to try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Sign up for our newsletter

* indicates required