Good sequels are rare and unique. Like The Godfather Part II, Empire Strikes Back and Toy Story 2, this sequel reunites its original team of Joanna Murray-Smith (playwright), Simon Phillips (director) and powerhouse performer Bernadette Robinson to be one of the greats in sequels for the stage.
Robinson is once again holding her own, recounting the experiences of Harper, a White House social secretary who has looked after presidential entertainers for 40 years. Harper herself is a disgraced Southern belle with a tortured past and her connection to her job shapes her life in significant ways.
Commencing with JFK’s presidency, through the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, we meet Harper as she’s packing up her office before the Bush administration moves in (and she is moved on). Recounting behind-the-scenes insights, Robinson assumes the roles of famous stars like Marilyn Monroe, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and many others as well as the personalities of White House staffers, first ladies and presidents.
The joy of this writing is the historic significance to American politics. The insignificant moments in time that shaped significant moments in history. Robinson is an exceptional actor. She does not need to look anything like the character to bring their presence onto the stage. As a petite, Caucasian, blonde woman, it is impossible not to believe her embodiment of such contrasting individuals as Aretha Franklin, with all the gestures and tone of the diva herself belting out ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T.’ or even Barbara Streisand in all her Yentl glory.
In equal measure, Robinson has an amazing voice, with wide range and styling. She imbues each note with precise characterisation and mimicry that you would swear artists like Bob Dylan were actually in the room.
The script itself is fascinating, based on true stories from the White House. Murray-Smith’s writing aims for a balance between the heartache of presidential assassinations and personal trials and funny anecdotes of holding onto starlets underwear and off-hand speech suggestions that reach a world stage. While some of the drama of Harper’s own story is a little laboured and brow-beating, Robinson delivers the entire script with such freshness and energy that the time flies by and the audience is genuinely moved by this woman’s story.
Musical direction by Ian McDonald is appropriately intertwined with the script and the simple “Blue Room” set design by Shaun Gurton provides enough opulence for context but never detracts from the performance itself. The use of projected portraits to highlight moments in time (and remind Australian audiences who some of the presidents actually are) is a subtle, yet effective device.
This team has proven once again that 90 minutes in the theatre can be captivating, entertaining and fascinating. Witness the powerhouse and don’t miss out!