Culture: Theatre

Beige Reviews: The Billie Holiday Story

Billie Holiday

Biographical music based shows live or die on whether they are a story being told through songs or a story being told with songs tacked on. In the most part Nina Kristofferson’s Billie Holiday is a successful hybrid of concert, cabaret and play, treading the fine line between tasteful homage and mawkish tribute very carefully. We are enthralled by our diva’s dark moments and here they are laid bare in a heady brew of jazz, smoke and sadness. Will Bowen’s bold red and black set, with images of topsy-turvy flophouses and a gurning moon, creates a delightfully infernal first impression for a show that deals deftly with one woman’s hellish life.

Holiday’s journey into the light is relentlessly dark, as befits its source material; the troubled tale of one of the twentieth century’s best loved jazz icons and the blueprint for our own lost soul, Amy Winehouse. Prostitution, rape, addiction, spells in prison for possession of drugs, whoring and ‘smacking a dyke’ are all there; the only tragedy that’s not spoken out loud is Holiday’s teenage abortion, but this is perhaps hinted at in the eerie children’s laughter she hears amongst the otherworldly noises she interprets as ‘the angels’ coming to take her away. In a happy accident, the ominous rumble of tube trains tunnelling below Charing Cross Theatre also suggest an ever-present underworld Billie tries hard (and ultimately fails) to avoid.

This framing device is the only jarring aspect of the production and was strangely reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, but in this sumptuously polished show, we’re certainly not in Kansas. Although the script (written by Kristofferson) does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of Holiday’s life, the grit in the staging is too infrequent and the main performance is a bit too ‘clean’. It is impossible not to compare this play to Tracie Bennett’s star turn as Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s ‘End Of The Rainbow’, which traced a similar journey, but was performed with more vim and vigour. The ‘awaiting death’ framing structure simply doesn’t work in a piece presented in two acts, where the interval interrupts our heroine’s inevitable demise and provides an opportunity for a glamorous costume change that might not be possible on a one-way trip to the pearly gates. It also unravels the momentum in the rollercoaster ride of this relentlessly courageous survivor, who shamelessly boasts she’d ‘stuff forty dollars in [her] vagina to make sure she got by’. The angels and their summoning sounds seem to have been forgotten by the end of the show, making the framework neither weighty nor dramatic enough to justify the conceit.

Nina Kristofferson has set herself a monumental task – her Holiday confesses that even she can’t copy herself – and although she has nailed Holiday’s vocal mannerisms, at times her voice lacks the powerful punch needed to bring real soul to the songs. Bright and lovely in her top register, her instrument is stronger on gutsier numbers such as ‘All of Me’ and the chilling ‘Don’t Explain’, which depicts Holiday shooting up in a ball gown and falling into an almost post-coital moment of smacked-out bliss. Kristofferson is at her most enticing when she is playful, addressing the audience directly and flirting with the gentlemen (and ladies) of the front row’s table seats. When this trick is repeated in act two, during Holiday’s inevitable decline, it feels rightly exposing and uncomfortable.

The story of Holiday’s trademark gardenia, which she hastily adopted to cover a bald patch she had accidentally scorched into her scalp with a hot iron, is perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for her career. She managed to take pain and turn it into passion, to blend brutality into beauty. The image is cleverly repeated in the script once Billie makes a triumphant return to the stage, singing at Carnegie Hall after yet another jail sentence for drug possession. Given the gift of a new gardenia, she doesn’t realise it has a hatpin attached and spends her triumphant debut baptised in her own blood.

The show is impeccably lit by Mike Robertson – with Kristofferson painted in bold silhouettes against smoke and colour, conjuring up the glamour and seediness of any jazz club committed to celluloid. For ‘I Cover the Waterfront’, she lounges languidly across the grand piano swigging from a bottle of gin and one can’t help but compare the romance of the song’s lyrics with the gritty reality of Holiday having probably trudged along many a boardwalk looking for punters in her earlier years.

The most striking part of the performance was in fact the encore, where Kristofferson finally threw off the shackles of the tightly wound script and truly flew, flanked by Albert Garza on saxophone and Martin Shaw on trumpet. Pork pie hats off to the whole band, led excellently by Allan Rogers on piano, whose discreet and authentic arrangements provide a perfect backing throughout.

Showing until 25 May.

Charing Cross Theatre
The Arches
Villiers Street

Words: Marcus Reeves

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