Patti Boulaye’s story is one of hard graft, lots of raw talent and a measure of ditzy good fortune: what she thought was the line for Madame Tussauds turned out to the audition queue for Hair! She has a lot still to give in live performance and a rich fund of anecdotes and showbiz wit and wisdom and to share: one hopes other cabaret venues in London will extend her an invitation soon.

Patti BoulayePatti Boulaye established her reputation as one of the leading black British entertainers in the 1980s, particularly on stage and television. But she is African to the core, with a major reputation in her home country of Nigeria and thoroughly imbued with a toughness and determination to succeed derived from an unflinching upbringing during the Biafran War. While family commitments side-lined her for a time, in recent years she has become visible once more, most recently on the BBC’s The Real Marigold Hotel. However, it was her touring cabaret show Billie and Me that brought her to the Pheasantry at the end of last week in a programme that gave much pleasure.

There will always be an audience for quality versions of the Billie Holiday standards, which is certainly what the evening provided. But Boulaye intended and pursued a deeper perspective than that. While not in any way claiming that their careers were closely similar, she sought to illustrate points at which they had faced common dilemmas and challenges, even where their responses had been strikingly different. In a generous evening, with twenty one songs, divided into two sets, she described a fine curve of varied emotions and intensity full of traditional cabaret virtues and developing a rare rapport with a packed audience of all ages.

Among the many themes addressed were the determining power of upbringing in shaping creativity for better and worse; the power of mothers to enable and to destroy, and the paradoxes involved in the lives of creative people where immense courage and resourcefulness in professional terms often goes alongside a susceptibility to exploitation by unscrupulous romantic partners. Along the way Boulaye gave searing accounts of Oh My Man I Love Him So, God Bless the Child, and above all, Strange Fruit which still contains the power to shock when delivered with the kind of understated, steely vocal precision Boulaye provided here.

Nevertheless, Boulaye seemed most at home in the songs that registered defiance, comic verve and optimism rather than tragedy and despair. As the programme developed she introduced some of her own numbers and others that had formed highlights of her own career: she offered a suitably saucy account of Bessie Smith’s Kitchen Man, a frothy and light version of Nice Work If You Can Get It, and reminded us of how effective she must have been as Carmen when she took her version of the Habanera right out into the audience in the last number before the break. There was also a most attractive number by Alberta Hunter, identified immediately by one audience member, much to Boulaye’s astonishment.

Not everything worked, particularly as signs of tiredness inevitably set it after a very long programme, and an even longer day of filming. The delivery of La Vie en Rose was laboured and not truly idiomatic; At Last was forced and pressed too hard, and a final rendition of My Way, was a tad underpowered, though notably defiant. An encore introduced Latin rhythms, clearly to the singer’s taste, and sent us away still wanting more.

Boulaye was joined onstage by very fine session musicians: Alan Rogers on piano, who also acted as MD, Jose Elias on drums and percussion, Phil Berry on bass and Martin Shaw on trumpet. Shaw in particular gave us some peerless solos which emerged out of and then receded back into the textures seamlessly, whether jaunty, bluesy or purely decorative; but we could have heard more from the others, all of whom were more than worthy of their own solo spots. This would also have been very much in the spirit of Holiday’s own recordings, especially in her later years, when she used her voice artfully as just one instrument among many. Perhaps with more rehearsal time this would have happened.

One of the questions that remained hanging in the air, at least in connection with Holiday, was whether great suffering is sometimes a precondition for the creation of greater art. How much is a large measure of pain a necessary element in creative invention and the effective realisation of communicated experience? In every generation there will be a contrast between singers and actors with technical control and formal perfection and those with vocal or stylistic imperfections but a huge and immediately communicative expressive range. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were the sisters of contrast for their generation, just as Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas were a similar pairing in the opera world of the same period. In fact we need both equally and that was perhaps the best and main lesson to take away from Boulaye’s meditation on the example of Holiday’s life and the counterpoint it presented to her own chosen pathways.

Boulaye straddles both worlds with a very fine vocal instrument, which is still in excellent condition in the later part of her career, but also capable of deploying a spectrum of moods and manners. She herself suggested that her own practical problem-solving determination born of African heritage and a resilient family had helped her negotiate a path that had avoided the self-destructive tendencies of Holiday while still allowing her enough experience of life in the raw to channel her own ideas and emotions.

It is worth adding as a tribute to her work ethic that after this show the singer was hospitalised briefly with exhaustion and dehydration but nevertheless insisted on completing all her engagements. If this was in some senses an old fashioned cabaret evening, full of bling and traditional diva rituals, it was hard earned and superlatively delivered in a way that only the most dedicated professionals respectful of their public can display.

Boulaye’s story is one of hard graft, lots of raw talent and a measure of ditzy good fortune: what she thought was the line for Madame Tussauds turned out to the audition queue for Hair! She has a lot still to give in live performance and a rich fund of anecdotes and showbiz wit and wisdom and to share: one hopes other cabaret venues in London will extend her an invitation soon.

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Patti Boulaye: Billie And Me
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…