Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar @ Grill

The hype surrounding Audra McDonald is totally justified if her first foray into London’s theatre land is anything to go by, because, to all intents and purposes, she is Billie Holiday.  Not only does she have a voice to die for and one that brings the late great singer back to life, but she perfects Holiday’s ability to perform whilst high on alcohol and or drugs.  Not an easy task.

Billie Holiday’s life was always a struggle, whilst death came early at the age of 44 due to heart and liver failure.  Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, she was the daughter of teenage mother, Sadie and jazz musician, Clarence, who disappeared off the scene when Billie was very young.  Sadie often left her daughter in the care of abusive relatives and by the time she was 9 years old Billie was sent to a school for troubled African American girls.  Returned to her mother (who was then working in a Harlem brothel) a year later, Billie was sexually assaulted.  Not an auspicious beginning and she fared no better in later years when her first husband, James Monroe, introduced her to opium.  Bearing in mind that she was already heavily dependent on alcohol, the relationship floundered, resulting in her meeting trumpeter, Joe Guy.  He, in turn introduced her to heroin and the death of her mother soon after, ensured that her addictions escalated.

By the mid 1950’s, when this play is set, Billie, or Lady Day (the nickname bestowed on her in 1937) was reduced to singing in dives like Emerson’s Bar & Grill.  Following a stint in prison and arrest for narcotics possession, the singer had been refused a work permit to perform in any place that served alcoholic drinks, prohibiting her appearances in nightclubs and jazz clubs.  This particular performance in 1959 was to be one of her last, as she died a few months later.

Not surprisingly, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, is a painful reminder of the toll the singer’s addiction had on her body and mind.  Reminiscing on her life between songs, we get a glimpse of what she has had to endure and the sadness at what her life has become.  There is light heartedness, especially during the performance we saw, when her beloved Chihuahua, Pepi, having licked her face (seemingly on “cue”) suddenly yelps, having got its paw caught in Audra’s ring.  Not remotely amusing as far as the dog is concerned, but a little light relief from the sadness for the audience.

Don’t get me wrong, this production isn’t a dirge; far from it.  It’s an opportunity to watch an extraordinary talent up close and personal, whilst enjoying expert musicians plying their craft. Billie’s relationship with her pianist and musical director (Shelton Bacton) is a treat.  Always on the alert as to the state of mind and inebriation of his singer, Bacton tries to second-guess her every move and the rapport between them is an unforced treat.

The brilliant Christopher Oram has also done a wonderful job in transforming the front few rows of Wyndhams Theatre into a 1950’s American “dive” bar.  Circular tables and chairs replace front row seats, whilst the stage accommodates audience members seated at tables as well as the three musicians and Audra.  Seated at Table 4, we were treated to the singer approaching us for a cigarette.  One member of our party had the honour of lighting said ciggie, which I know added to his enjoyment of an evening watching the reincarnation of the troubled but superb Billie Holiday aka Audra MacDonald.

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