Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill @ Wyndham’s Theatre: Blood at the Root

There’s a handful of actors that I’m willing to get up at some ungodly hour to go and stand outside a box office and wait for day tickets for. Rylance, Gough… and Audra McDonald. There’s a whole load of reasons that I might have been interested in seeing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – I mean, if any life is worthy of drama, Billie Holiday’s certainly was. But really? I just really wanted to hear Audra McDonald hear some of my favourite music in the world.

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The aforementioned day seats are actually on the stage; Christopher Oram’s set has the bar literally invading the stage, stretching into the wings and into the auditorium. It crashes into the space the way Holiday crashes into the club, and like Holiday, is sort of shabby, peeling – but always aspiring towards glamour. If you’ve ever seen a Christopher Oram set you know what I’m getting at. The front seats at the Wyndham’s have been taken out and replaced with cabaret tables, and the back of the stage is similar. In the middle is the stage for the three-piece band; a pianist, a drummer, and a bassist (Shelton Becton, Frankie Tontoh and Neville Malcolm, respectively.) At the edge of the stage stands a solitary microphone.

First off, the quality of musicianship in this play is astounding. Being so close to those instruments, and watching how those players watch each other is an endlessly fascinating thing. The way they communicate with just a glance, and an instinct and a rhythm. Watching the drummer switch from a stick to a brush and back again and watching how he can manipulate these really very simple implements at such close quarters is sooooo good.

The play itself, by Lanie Robertson, may not be a masterpiece, but it carries the potential for a brilliant performance from an actress, and that’s certainly what we get.

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The piece dramatizes one of Billie Holiday’s last gigs. Her performances at Emerson’s were among her last, and it follows the structure of a gig. She sings a number, then tells an anecdote and so on. As the gig goes on, and Holiday gets drunker and drunker (she consumes an alarming quantity of vodka onstage) the anecdotes get more and more inappropriate, and Jimmy, her musical director has to keep reeling her back in. Such was the nature of Holiday’s life and personality that she can drop an aside about being raped at 10 years old – and it’s only one of the worst things that has happened to her.

Holiday, we realise, is seriously unwell. She’s come out of jail, and is struggling to draw an audience. She can only perform with the help of alcohol, we’re told there’s a doctor offstage lest she become overwhelmed (but it’s implied what she’s actually doing offstage is rather less medical.) But this is not immediately apparent; Holiday seems on her game, moving through her first two numbers with ease. There’s a musical break in When a Woman Loves a Man where Holiday looks back at the band, seemingly enjoying the music, and then you realise she isn’t at all – she’s just waiting to be given her cue. She barely knows where she is, let alone what she should be singing.

What Audra McDonald does is no impersonation – frankly, her voice is too strong to replicate Holiday’s exactly. But she fills her voice with Holiday’s tone and phrasing, those scoops that made her seem on a completely different tuning to everyone else, but were still so thrilling to listen to. She has that perfect balance of absolute technique and craft with the danger of a live performer; you wonder what – McDonald and Holiday both – are going to do next, vocally, physically, emotionally… She’s a real live wire on the stage.

I’m not sure if it’s Acting-With-A-Capital-A or if it’s utterly invisible acting. I also don’t care either way. There’s a moment where he pianist tries to get her to sing God Bless the Child before she feels ready to sing it. She is so incensed at being undermined on her stage that she slams the piano shut, narrowly avoiding trapping fingers in the process. All the humour falls away, you become acutely aware of the steel in this woman, and McDonald plays it beautifully.

And that’s what characterises her performance; there’s an absolute strength to her, but it’s surrounded by a body that is disintegrating, and out of it comes this frail, trembling, and suddenly soaring sound. It is the fact that McDonald is as good an actor as a singer that makes it work. Instead of it feeling like a boring biopic, the pure exposition that is associated with one-person shows, McDonald plays it like the perfectly logical ramblings of a drunk/high star at her most desperate, but at the absolute height of her talents. When you sit on stage, you’re privileged to the sight of Holiday in her spotlight, the light cutting through the haze from the gods. The whole thing is lit exquisitely incidentally, shifting from reds and oranges to acid green and back again.

It was Strange Fruit that got to me. I already thought it was a beautiful, if completely horrifying song, but the second that first chord sounds it was like the whole audience took a big breath. As Holiday croons about the “southern trees” and the pretty “pastoral scene,” and as the landscape shifts into “bodies swing” and then the sharpness of “for the sun to rot” in the – by this point – completely silent theatre, the tension builds and builds until that final scoop on the word “crop.” The light falls away and Holiday is left in that spotlight, head turned, seemingly in mourning. It’s no wonder this is the song that forces her to leave the stage – if only briefly.

The show was recorded live in New York – thank GOD – and it is beautifully evocative of sitting in the theatre. I’ve found myself listening to Strange Fruit a lot, actually. Particularly with all the crap going on in the US. Lady Day, it turns out, is quietly but determinedly political. It may well be the only all-black cast in the West End at the moment, for that matter.

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Yes, Lady Day is in many ways typical West End fare. It’s not very complicated, it’s not daring formally, or unconventional in its staging, but at its heart is a blistering, titanic performance. And often, that’s enough to make the rest worth it. What could be an unashamed star vehicle (and not the good kind) is given flesh and blood with McDonald’s performance.

Loved it.

 

Photo by Marc Brenner.

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Road @ Royal Court: Somehow A Somehow

Why did the Northerner cross the road?

TO GET A DECENT FECKING PART IN A PLAY.

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Jim Cartwright’s Road holds an almost mythic place in the pantheon of modern classics. It is so often cited as an example of the Royal Court firing on all cylinders, messing with form and content, transforming the theatre physically and metaphorically. Some of my favourite northern actors have been influenced by it – Maxine Peake recalls it being the first play she read at school and was able to recognise herself.

I only knew it by reputation. I’d never read it, never seen it. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to this year. Ultimately, it wasn’t what I expected.

It’s a series of vignettes, and soliloquies. Snatches of conversation and speeches are heard, as we hurtle down this unnamed road in sort-of Bolton (Brothel on wheels. Peake knows what’s up,) and all this is emceed by the aimless Scullery (Lemn Sissay,) a man with a deep affection for the people living on this road. Characters are barely characters, they are voices. They are individuals, but also a “whole kind of person,” as Kushner might say. It’s like ‘Not I’ but with social context. They call out into the dark, not for help, but just to be heard. You can certainly see how this was so arresting in promenade.

Inevitably, some bits work better than others, and most of the best bits are in the second act. I did find myself wishing that someone had taken a pair of scissors to some of the scenes, although I’m sure even simply speeding it up, and running it straight through without an interval might have added a momentum that’s hard to generate when you simply move from speech to speech. But under it all, there’s a quiet rhythm and a quiet poetry to it. Most surprisingly, it’s political with a determinedly lowercase ‘p.’ You don’t hear any speeches denouncing Thatcher or her policies; no sense that the circumstances of these people can be attributed to anyone – except maybe everyone.

And there are some gorgeous moments. There’s a wonderful scene where Michelle Fairley’s Helen is trying to seduce a drunk, younger soldier. It’s pathetic, and hopeless. He’s barely conscious and she’s desperate. She kneels in her plate of chips to dodge his vomit – the most convincing stage vomit I’ve seen since Adler and Gibb, incidentally – and you can’t help but wonder how the hell it got to this point. These characters can’t afford to have a past or a present, they can only afford to live quid to quid, in the moment.

It’s in the moment that the joy of the piece takes flight. These characters aren’t seeking anything but an ear. They want to be heard; they want everything to change and nothing to change. When Scullery dances to Swan Lake with an old trolley, the collision of absurdity and realism meant I couldn’t help but grin. It’s ridiculous, and somehow completely recognisable. Which is true for the whole piece, whenever I was worried it was falling into caricature, I’d remember someone I know who is exactly like that character in manner or attitude. I know everyone in this play, somehow.

I can forgive the dodgy scenes in Road because of the last one. Two lads and two girls, as the morning approaches. Everyone’s nervous, worried to make the first move. When the girls threaten to leave, the lads promise them something different. They drink a considerable amount of red wine, then stand, facing out, and we listen to Try A Little Tenderness in its entirety, as it swells from ballad to a thumping R&B blare. There’s the urge to move, to release the tension, but they just listen. The release comes after the music is over, and they begin to talk. They shout into the theatre, demanding to be heard, their dreams and their hopes.

And they start to chant, to incant even, “somehow a somehow might escape. Somehow a somehow might escape.” It’s a plea, and a prayer. It’s genuinely quite painful to listen to, at least to me. I thought about Tony’s line in Billy Elliot “we can’t all be fuckin’ dancers,” the idea that there are so many people doomed to spend their lives on this road, and knowing there’s no shame in that. But then somehow I have to reconcile my own desire to get as far away from my own road as possible, with my love for the people that live there still. The sheer fucking guilt you feel when you escape, but that you have to ignore in want of something else. And it’s all carried in that line.

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John Tiffany’s production seems at first to expose the theatre for the skeleton that it is, but when you look closer, you see the back wall is a recreation, the poles at the side are fake lampposts… It’s simultaneously interior and exterior, nowhere and everywhere… It also seems very traditional.

When you put a piece like this, so overtly confrontational, in a proscenium arch space there’s inevitably dead air between the performer and the audience. There’s more effort in pushing the voice out into the space, and it somehow rings slightly hollow. It sounds like acting.

It’s not helped by the glass box designer Chloe Lamford uses to facilitate the quick scene changes. This sterile cube that is spat forth from the stage floor, revealing lonely figure after lonely figure to be watched. It does isolate the character, but to a fault. You hear the voice from the speakers, you know there’s a barrier between you and them. When those characters are asking to be heard, it lets the audience off the hook, because you can sense the separation.

There’s also the movement, actors sweeping across the stage removing and setting up props as they go. Sometimes they linger at the side of the stage, watching. At the end, this escalates into dance, and I’m not convinced it has the effect intended; it’s almost as if Tiffany doesn’t trust the words, and feels he has to create a visual magic on top of the linguistic. I use the word magic deliberately, because I did find it reminding me of his work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child quite a lot. In mood, in atmosphere… even in aesthetic, although this was brick where Potter was wooden panels.

But Tiffany has assembled a great company of actors. They act entirely without ego – this is a play that would disintegrate if anyone tried – but with quiet dignity, and more importantly, you can tell they’re having a blast. Liz White and Faye Marsay (in her STAGE DEBUT ffs) are especially good, there’s a warmth and a wit to their portrayals that in other hands might feel contrived. White in particular can carve years into her expressions as she despairs over her husband and then ditch them as she scoffs chips on the edge of the stage at the end of a night out.

Also, excellent wigs throughout.

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Periodically, I ask myself when was the last time I saw a northerner on stage. It’s often months in between occasions. If I ask myself when was the last time I saw a Scouser that wasn’t nicking something, I have to go back 3 and a half years to Educating Rita. You might argue that this isn’t the responsibility of the London theatres, as there are regional theatres that do this, and do it excellently. I beg to differ. The theatres in London have a status that privileges them. They get more money, and their reputations are more widely known. When that money is derived from taxes collected from all over the country, they have an obligation to represent the voices of those people.

Not only is Road a piece of the Royal Court’s history, it does exactly this. It puts the voices of working class northerners in direct conversation with the audience. I think to argue against this because of the affluence of the audience, and the location of the theatre (there’s a sodding Hugo Boss next door) is a cop out. Does it feel like the audience is laughing at the people Road portrays? Occasionally. For what it’s worth it didn’t bother me nearly as much as the audience at Ink did.

But it does raise the question, why do they need to revive it? Why isn’t the Royal Court putting on new plays that are dealing with the lives of working class northerners today? They’re doing it next season too, going back to a 35 year old play in Rita, Sue and Bob Too instead of commissioning new work. The only northern voices you hear are echoes from decades ago.

Because even at the Royal Court, with its reputation for being at the forefront of every theatrical shift, RP remains the standard. Take Anatomy of a Suicide, for instance (which I loved, before you start,) why did those women have to talk like that? Why couldn’t they talk with a Geordie accent? Or a Lancashire accent? Or Scouse? What about Bodies, upstairs at the moment. Middle-class people live in Yorkshire, too. And yes, there was a Scotsman in it, but Justine Mitchell couldn’t use her Irish voice? Escaped Alone, Unreachable, The Children… I’m sure there’s others. I’m probably being a bit harsh, or even unfair. But it seems to keep happening.

Put voices on stage that you will actually hear on the street. It’s not like by putting northerners on a stage you’re denying opportunities to cockneys, because you never hear them either. It doesn’t have to be about people from those areas. Just do it. It won’t destroy any world you’re meticulously trying to create, it just makes it sound more real.

Maybe I’m being old fashioned. Maybe what I’m suggesting is a version of realism that went out of style years ago. But it still lingers. And that pisses me off.

 

Photo by Johan Persson.