As the final note of this emotional plea echoes within Wilton’s Music Hall, the capacity audience rises to its feet in joint acclaim. The central jewel of Songs for Nobodies is the remarkable talent of Bernadette Robinson. Many singers have interpreted the stars in song, but Robinson takes their portrayal to a higher artistic level with the addition of the narrative.
In this country, people are always talkin’ about dreams. You can be your dream. You can have your dream. You can live the dream. But that’s just a clever way of gettin’ people to shut up and stop complainin’.
Songs for Nobodies was written as a dramatic vehicle for Bernadette Robinson, an Australian performer with an extraordinary voice. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Simon Phillips the play was originally produced at the Melbourne Theatre Company. It played to packed houses around Australia before the European premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall on 21 March 2018.
This production is one of those magical amalgamations of the many elements of theatre combining to produce a show that is bigger than the sum of its individual elements alone.
The central jewel of Songs for Nobodies is the remarkable talent of Robinson. The singing technique is honed to perfection to present five divas from different musical styles and eras, each sung to perfection. The songs themselves are almost secondary to the narratives. There are cutting observations and witticisms that surprise and which are all delivered with sparkle and panache. Robinson skips between the characters effortlessly, drawing in her audience to hold them rapt throughout.
Songs for Nobodies is structured in one act of ninety minutes, containing five separate narratives. Each story is introduced by a ‘nobody’: an anonymous woman who dwells in lower stratospheres than the celebrity they meet. Their lives touch for fifteen minutes or a few hours, or second hand even in the case of Piaf, and each life is affected by the meeting to varying degrees. And each diva sings a song which the nobody feels is directed to only them but which encapsulates the star.
Of the five narratives, the story of a Nottingham librarian, Edie Delamotte, is the most poignant. It tells how Edith Piaf saves the life of Papa Delamotte in Nazi Germany and how Edie pays homage every year. This segment contains the classic Non, Je Regrette Rien, sung with authenticity and deep emotion.
Robinson stands on the base of the book written by Murray-Smith and the solid direction of Simon Phillips. She is backed by a three piece band under the direction of onstage pianist Greg Arrowsmith. James Pritchar on percussion plays a slew of instruments including bongos and some mellow vibes. Oliver Weston also plays many instruments and his saxophone duet with Robinson in the Billie Holiday section is a highlight, further enhanced by the sound design of Justin Teasdale and Tony Gayle.
The diversity of the multiple story lines demands a sympathetic design. The dark stage design by Justin Nardella appears deceptively simple, but provides Robinson with a space versatile enough to serve the five vignettes. It is evocatively played with by lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, enveloping Robinson in a visual palette of support.
From the opening state of a tight spot outlining the star, to the silhouetted perfection of Judy Garland and the centre stage golden splendour of Callas, the lighting defines the characters and mood. There is a beautiful moment in the Billie Holiday segment when cigarette smoke is caught in a single beam of light that escalates as the lady sings the Blues and the light turns blue.
The final ‘nobody’ is a young Irish girl, Orla McDonagh, who takes a job on the Onassis yacht, Christina. Bringing Orla into the world of the rich and famous ‘somebodies’ she ponders Who might I be if I were somebody? The answer is seemingly provided by the superb Robinson as Maria Callas singing Puccini’s Vissi D’arte.
The words of the aria reflect the often troubled lives of the world’s ‘somebodies’:
I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?
As the final note of this emotional plea echoes within Wilton’s Music Hall, the capacity audience rises to its feet in joint acclaim.