Pennsylvania Avenue | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Bernadette Robinson. Photo – Jeff Busby

In a promotional clip for Pennsylvania Avenue, star, Bernadette Robinson says of her artistic collaborators, playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith & director, Simon Phillips, “that Joanna challenges me and Simon, simply draws the best out of me.”

And that’s precisely what they’ve done in this one-woman show. A show whereby Robinson commands the stage for 90 minutes with no interval and no costume changes.

Pennsylvania Avenue is a personal story intertwined within the context of the White House. Harper Clements from Thunderbolt, Georgia, starts off as an 18 year old “assistant to the assistant to the assistant” and chronicles the halcyon days of JFK, through to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Clinton’s indiscretions and eventually concludes at the start of George W. Bush’s administration (when she’s nearing 60.)

Harper’s story is one of vulnerability and grief and through her point-of-view, we meet the people she meets – both the politicians and singers, all of whom had a ‘connection’ to the White House, and all of whom, Robinson miraculously reincarnates.

Factually, they are the performers who sang for the presidents – Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Dianna Ross, Eartha Kitt et al and are complimented by other influential singers of that era, whose songs also provide a social commentary.

As a singer and actress, Robinson is a great storyteller. She has the amazing ability to channel the voices of these iconic singers coupled with the genius to translate the minute particulars of the lives she portrays into a performance that demonstrates the torments of the heart – the suffering, the nostalgia, the longing and the sacrifice.

Not only is she a brilliant singer but such a convincing actress, that she adopts mannerisms and recreates iconic moments etched in our collective memories with such incredible respect and authenticity.

The monologues that accompany the singing, her stage presence, her beautiful phrasing (and how it moves the narrative forward) are flawless.

Her dramatic interpretations and the sheer breadth of her repertoire seamlessly marry the words, music & actions.

As we delve into 40 years of her memories & mementoes, symbolised by one box that she (intermittently) hauls around on stage, it allows Robinson to convey Harper’s reliability and discretion, all the whilst increasing the emotional intensity.

Murray-Smith’s text is so witty, telling and incisive. Like when Marilyn Monroe says of Maria Callas, “now there’s a dame that can hold a tune” or the way Harper describes Barbra Streisand, “as the epitome of bohemian glamour just with the absence of that ‘a’”. I was particularly tickled when she quotes Hillary Clinton from that infamous 60 Minutes Interview in 1992, “you know, I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” and then says, that was “kind of ironic, seeing Tammy had been married 5 times!”

And yet it also has the ability to imbue such humanity and empathy – the Sarah Vaughan incident, the Eartha Kitt furore and the Aretha Franklin inspired epiphany; “I am not a victim…I don’t need God’s judgement or forgiveness, but my own.”

It seemed to me that what transpired on stage was the truth – and I found it hard to distinguish “Harper’s reality” from real life. Robinson seduces you and makes you feel like she’s talking just to you, which in an 800+ seat theatre is an incredible feat in itself.

It’s a compelling drama, it received a standing ovation and audiences should flock to the Playhouse.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Joanna Murray-Smith

Director Simon Phillips

Venue: Playhouse | Melbourne Arts Centre
Dates: January 21 – February 14, 2016
Venue: Cremore Theatre | QPAC, Brisbane
Dates:  March 3 – 20, 2016
Bookings: | 136 246
Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: March 25 – May 22, 2016

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