Simon Phillips directs the West End transfer of Songs For Nobodies. The production, written by Joanna Murray Smith specifically to showcase the extraordinary vocal ability of actress Bernadette Robinson, had its European première at Wilton’s Music Hall earlier this year and opened to wide critical and audience acclaim. This new play with songs features music from five iconic divas; Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas and opens at the Ambassadors Theatre on 10 January, with previews from 7 January and running until 23 February.
You’re directing Songs for Nobodies at The Ambassador’s Theatre, what can you tell us about it?
It’s a simple ‘what if’ premise that yields rich rewards. What if an essentially unremarkable human being had an encounter or connection with a huge star that changed the course of their life? In the course of the evening you meet ten women: the five vocal legends and the five women they meet. All played by one actress, Bernadette Robinson.
How did you get involved in the production?
I commissioned it actually. I was running the Melbourne Theatre Company at the time and saw Bernadette Robinson perform. I decided her talents were so extraordinary, we needed to have a piece written especially for her.
What is it about Joanna Murray Smith’s writing that so perfectly captures the legends and the nobodies?
It was Joanna who had the idea that rather than make this yet another tribute show to the divas themselves, the most detailed characters would be the nobodies, who she was free to invent. It was a masterstroke, because although the encounters are fictional, if you conjecture too much about legends like Garland or Piaf, you run into indisputable facts! With the ‘nobodies’, Joanna was free to examine human frailties and vulnerabilities that everyone can relate to, while leaving the legends intact. The five nobodies are all incredibly beautifully drawn, different individuals and the singers – well, their individually was never in question.
How challenging is it directing a one woman show like this one?
It’s a rare pleasure because there’s only one person you have find a channel of communication with. You can work in a way that suits that person only, whereas with a cast of ten you’re trying to find ten individual languages AND your own ‘mission control’ voice.
What’s your favourite part of Bernadette Robinson’s performance?
I think it’s the overall restraint. She’s quite a contained person and her work is beautifully observed but not overtly theatrical. She trusts the audience to come to her. Which makes it all the more surprising when one of the divas suddenly blows the roof off.
How does it feel to see Songs for Nobodies transfer to London’s West End?
I’m so delighted for Bernadette, because she really has a very special gift and it’s great to see it honoured in this way. Of course, it’s scary because there are so many options for West End theatre goers and I’m asking them to chose a ‘nobody’ from Australia over all those ‘somebodies’. But if they do, it’ll be worth it, I can tell you – it’s a rare jewel.
What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see Songs for Nobodies?
Don’t be disconcerted by the fact that you know very little about it or its star. Just come anyway. When we first did it in Australia Bernadette was hardly known there either, but it became a sensation that toured the country three times. You’ll love it.