Theatre Review: Songs for Nobodies
Songs for Nobodies
By Joanna Murray Smith, directed by Ross Gumbley
The Court Theatre, until July 15
A four-week, one-woman show on the Court's main stage is daring programming, but director Ross Gumbley and actor Ali Harper have taken a justified leap of faith in their ability to carry off this challenge.
The elegantly-designed, empty stage was never inhabited by Ali Harper, but, rather by the diverse characters she portrayed. Sean Hawkins' varied, but unobtrusive lighting significantly assisted the performer's character differentiation; the silhouetted projection of the superb instrumental trio, led by Richard Marrett, during the Billie Holiday episode, was particularly effective.
But it was the actor, alone on the stage, who engaged us for the show's uninterrupted 90 minutes. The play tells the stories of five women (Nobodies), each of whose lives is touched by a famous diva. Ali Harper was at her best portraying the nobodies: a lavatory attendant, theatre usher, librarian, journalist and nanny. Each came vividly to life, communicating Australian writer Joanna Murray-Smith's expression of women's perspectives in a variety of situations.
The depictions of the divas were slightly less successful; these are real and exceptional people, as opposed to the fictional nobodies. Harper's singing was accomplished, and her ability to convey the vocal characteristics, stage mannerisms and personalities of four of these was generally convincing. But that almost indefinable sense of vulnerability in Judy Garland's artistry was somehow missing, as was the emotionally generous warmth of Patsy Cline and that certain otherworldliness of Edith Piaf. If the improvisatory quality of Billie Holiday's genius was also missing, Harper gave us a genuine and moving glimpse into the tragic reality of her life – "Tell me, what do happy people sing about?"
The final Maria Callas episode was problematic. The writer had already placed superhuman demands on the performer, but this one was impossible. Unlike the other stars, here, apart from brief mentions of her presence on Onassis' yacht, we saw nothing of Callas for ourselves. She remained a mysterious figure in the background to Harper's consummate and hilarious Irish Nanny. However, Murray-Smith seemed less interested in Callas than in drawing a parallel between Tosca-Scarpia and Orla (the nanny)-Onassis. Any attempt to represent Callas' singing is surely a serious misjudgment. Perhaps here we needed a recording or video (one exists) of Callas herself as background to Orla's own personal encounter.
But this impossible ask does not diminish Ali Harper's achievement in an otherwise truly astonishing acting and singing tour-de-force.