It is ten years since Bernadette Robinson first performed her one-woman show Songs for Nobodies at the Fairfax Studio, and now she is reprising the show there, home in Melbourne after a triumphant run in London’s West End.
I don’t believe anyone else could perform this show, which demands a unique blend of expertise: a talent for accents, an ability to sing in any range and genre, and acting versatility. A born mimic, Robinson excels at all these skills. And who else could switch between the big-sky warmth of country singer Patsy Cline to the existential howl of Billie Holiday’s final years, or between the growling reverberations of Piaf’s chansons to the divine bel canto of Maria Callas?
Songs for Nobodies was written for Robinson by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Simon Phillips, and focuses on five of Robinson‘s singing idols – Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. Her passion for these singers, all tragic in their own way, imbues her performance with intelligence and empathy.
The play is conceived as a series of brief encounters between the five divas and the fictional ‘nobodies’ who touched their hems, women who suffered in their smaller lives, not unlike their idols. Each monologue reveals the characters who live in the shadows, in some way serving the stars: a toilet attendant, auditorium usher, journalist, librarian and nanny. Robinson swings through a variety of regional American accents to a perfect cut-glass English, and finally Irish. Murray-Smith paints these delightful portraits of ordinary people and Robinson serves them up with humour and emotional weight.
Robinson is, first and foremost, a singer. She studied voice under Dame Joan Hammond at the Victorian College of the Arts, and the climax of the play is her extraordinary rendition of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Opera is, however, just one of her skills. No style eludes her. She follows a tricky trajectory from Garland’s dramatic dynamics to Patsy Cline’s robust contralto to Holiday’s broken blues. She inhabits Piaf, the Little Sparrow, like a revenant, before launching into the soaring and heart-melting Callas.
Robinson is no diva. She makes no claims for stardom, but borrows the light of stars. Her modesty is part of the magic. She is able to disappear and reappear in an instant, each time recreating a diva with a distinct voice, character and tormented history: drugs, alcohol, an early death and other tragedies.
The creative production team has produced a simple and perfect stage set and lit it dramatically. Props consist of little more than a drinks cupboard, just enough to furnish the little lives, and the big ones. Half-hidden by a translucent curtain, the musical ensemble provides Robinson with powerful but unobtrusive backing.
This 90-minute one-woman show takes us on a long journey from the little, pinched voice of a nervous toilet attendant, to the sound of Maria Callas in full flight. The whole gamut of life, in all its glory and grit and tragedy. What more could you want?
Songs for Nobodies
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 18 Dec 2019 – 5 Jan 2020
Tickets: $64 – $129
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800
Sydney 23 January – 9 February 2020