Making its European premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall, Songs for Nobodies has already caused quite a stir in Australia, garnering audience and critical acclaim. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Simon Phillips, it reads on paper like a fairly intriguing tribute act, featuring songs from the likes of Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. But, a few minutes in to Bernadette Robinson’s extraordinary performance and you realise this is something entirely different.
Murray-Smith has taken a very inventive path with this hybrid of monologues and music. There are five scenes, all different, and all performed by Bernadette Robinson, with each revolving around an iconic singer, but the focus of each story is a ‘nobody’ who’s brief encounter with their respective celebrity had a lasting impact on their life. These are hypothetical meetings, but are so well crafted, you feel like you are listening to a piece of history unfold right in front of you.
Aside from Songs for Nobodies very cleverly written monologues, Bernadette Robinson gives an astonishing performance, not only does she play each of the ‘nobodies’ but their star counterparts as well. Each character is distinct and feels completely different from the others; the quivering voice of Bea Appleton is nowhere to be seen when the confident Pearl Avalon appears, while Orla McDonagh, the nineteen-year-old Irish nanny aboard the Onassis yacht, couldn’t be any further from the English librarian found in Piaf’s story.
And when she sings, it’s as those famous women, its not so much impersonation as an embodiment of these 20th Century icons. To take us from the county music of Patsy Cline right through to the operatic soprano of Maria Callas, with a stop for some jazz from Billie Holiday, is quite an accomplishment, and the audience were loving it.
Atop a circular stage, with a rake so steep my shins ached just looking at it, Bernadette Robinson has only a chair and some cabinets for company. My first instinct was that it was all very black, but some incredible lighting from Malcolm Rippeth brought the stage alive with great waves of colour landing in just the right places.
Her band sit behind the stage, just coming in to audience view when it’s time for one of those powerful vocal performances. Greg Arrowsmith’s musical direction the unsung hero here as wonderful musical arrangements fill the Wilton’s Music Hall, the evocative saxophone paired with the tinkling piano. Just gorgeous.
Songs for Nobodies is as far from a tribute act as you can imagine, it has been beautifully written to take the audience through an imagined jaunt of possibilities, with plenty of humour sprinkled in. Beautiful music and staging combine to create something worth watching, while Bernadette Robinson gives us a truly magnificent performance, both acting and vocally. Songs for Nobodies may just be the surprise hit of the spring season.