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