Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

A delayed arrival in the West End for Broadway star Audra McDonald – she was due to appear in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill a couple of years ago, but the entire run got cancelled because she was pregnant. Now she finally gets to take the stage at Wyndham’s – the same theatre she was due to play in the first place – and demonstrate why she couldn’t have been replaced. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play recreates an evening in the titular Philadelphia bar, where Billie Holiday (McDonald) performed in 1959, a few months before her death. She has mixed feelings about playing there – she loves the bar and has friends there but Philadelphia itself is where she pled guilty to her first husband’s drug charges expecting to be let off easy, and ended up in prison for a year instead. By the time she takes to the stage she’s already a few drinks down and she’s never too far from a full glass of neat gin the whole evening, but this is far from a unique reaction to a city she doesn’t feel comfortable in.

Holiday’s death a few months later was from cirrhosis of the liver, a fact that’s hardly surprising given her multiple addictions, and as her arrest in Philadelphia was far from the only dark moment in her life a tragic end seems inevitable.

Holiday is of course at the bar to perform a set, and her musical director (Shelton Becton) is there to make sure she includes the hits, like “God Bless the Child,” she’s contracted to do, as she has a tendency to improvise. He’s also there to support her if she can’t cope, something that looks more inevitable as the evening goes on. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is a haunting experience, somewhere between cabaret night and play with songs, as Holiday intersperses songs with anecdotes from her life, a few of them light but most revealing a history of abuse and addiction. Some stories are very telling about life in segregated America in general – one about a woman who took particular pleasure in discriminating against Holiday even builds to a comic ending, but still leads in to the disturbing “Strange Fruit.” Elsewhere it’s the casual way she mentions horrors as asides that reveal the most about how she became both a musical legend and a cautionary tale.

Even with a fairly limited knowledge of Holiday I could tell how uncannily McDonald recreates her distinctive plaintive, cracking voice, and though I also don’t know much about McDonald’s usual singing style I’m assured this is such a departure it makes her performance all the more impressive. It’s not just in the songs but in the acting that she makes her mark, despite all the darkness she’s reliving she holds onto a warmth for her audience (Christopher Oram’s design puts audience members on the stage as well as having the set spill out into the front of the stalls, recreating as much of an intimate club atmosphere as you can in a place like Wyndham’s,) occasionally wandering off the stage to steal the audience’s cigarettes or search in a panic for her drink.

This is in a way an evening watching her disintegrate, eventually not even bothering to make sure her long gloves hide the track marks on her arms, but Lonny Price’s production manages to keep the tone respectful enough that this feels more tribute than ghoulish look at a genius falling apart. Its subject matter may not be light but the songs still make it soar, and McDonald proves well worth the wait – as she’s mainly played on Broadway before, I hope someone’s told her the instant standing ovations she’s getting over here are a major compliment and not the default like they are in New York.


Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson is booking until the 9th of September at Wyndham’s Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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