Regular readers of this blog will have heard me frequently sigh over my secret boyfriends including, but not limited to: David Tennant, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Grint, and Robert Rodriguez. One thing I have not had until today has been a secret girlfriend. Bernadette Robinson has completely changed that and is now a contender for my heart.
Songs for Nobodies was the final play for our final Melbourne Theatre Company subscription, as the prices for subs when you’re thirty or older become far too expensive. (I hold Chris entirely to blame; I don’t turn thirty for another year, but refuse to see plays by myself because then who will I be able to whisper “they were on the telly!” to?) Fittingly, we saw our first and last plays in the same theatre—the Fairfax, in the Arts Centre—and we were also running late, as we were for our first play. Here I should mention how lovely MTC staff are when you turn up late, wracked with guilt and apologetic—they tell you how long until you can enter, set you up in a chair, and turn on a television that fuzzily broadcasts the play as it is performed. The people we had to clamber in front of were less excited, but hey guys, YOU try turning right in our car at the moment: it’s a fine and stupid art.
Songs for Nobodies follows the story of five separate women: the first, a woman who meets Judy Garland (this is the bit we arrived late for, so I am not as clear as I wish I was); an American usher glowing after her experience with Patsy Cline; an New Yawk journalist setting up an interview with Billie Holiday; an English librarian recounting how Edith Piaf saved her father’s life; a young Irish woman working on a cruise ship packed with temperamental celebrities, including Maria Callas. In each story, the most notable tunes by those singers will also be performed along with a band and—while many of the tunes are not particularly high on my list of favourites because I have heard them so much during my life—listening to them performed six feet in front of you by an artist who gets them all absolutely pitch-perfect was one of the most amazing theatrical experiences I’ve had.
Without a performer of the calibre of Bernadette Robinson, this play would be nothing. But listening to her get every accent right, all while wearing the same sharp outfit, utilising the minimalist, slightly art-deco set, and becoming five completely different people—she is incredible. As the librarian, she looks austere, walks with her head held high and speaks in a clipped accent that is nothing less than convincing. As the Irish teenager, fresh out of a relationship with an “evil bastard...no, he isn’t a bastard, but he is evil”, she is all sass and and lopes around the stage, recounting her tale with delicious drama. And when she sings—oh—you’ve never heard anything like it. Or you have, because she sounds so much like the singers she’s emulating that the hairs raised up on my arms and I leaned forward in my chair, beaming at this woman who, moments before, had been an aspiring journalist nicknamed Too Junior Jones, and then suddenly became Billie Holiday, singing the always moving Strange Fruit. It really is something.
The play isn’t all singing, though, and the little snippets of existence we get from the women are of equal interest. They are funny, and smart, and appealing. When the librarian makes a crass joke with her beautiful voice you can’t help but giggle; when the usher accidentally walks in on Patsy Cline you are excited for her, meeting her idol. Bernadette Robinson is an absolute revelation—to me, anyway, as she is a well-known performer. Joanna Murray-Smith wrote the play for Bernadette, and it is hard to imagine anyone else in these roles, able to sing as five loved stars, and to act as five anonymous women whose lives were changed by them.
I didn’t even make any jokes in this review. That’s how blown away I was by this play. It took away my propensity to be ridiculous and filled that part of my brain with awe.
In summary: Exceeds Expectations and the perfect end to our subscription. I also want to know who styled Bernadette’s hair, because it was great. If I could complain about anything, it would be that it started on time so we missed the beginning. Damn efficient MTC.
The Songs for Nobodies season runs from November 5 to January 15, already having been extended, probably due to an excess of awesome.