Somehow I’d missed Bernadette Robinson in Songs for Nobodies. If you also missed it, or know that you have to see it again, it’s back in Melbourne at the Arts Centre and it is as great as everyone said it was.
I admit that I’m always dubious about a showcase work – and it’s not like Melbourne has a shortage of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday or Maria Callas impersonators – so I went along mostly out of curiosity. Sure, curiosity sometimes kills, but it also uncovers choice treats and pillowy warm spots to rest and dream.
First seen in 2009, Songs for Nobodies was created to show off Robinson’s astonishing singing. And rightly so; hers is a voice that grabs your heart at first note and doesn’t let ago until there’s silence. Director Simon Phillips saw this and, knowing that it had to be more than a cabaret, brought playwright Joanna Murray-Smith on board to find the story for this remarkable voice.
The soul of this new work comes from Murray-Smith’s decision to not write about the divas whose songs Robinson sings, but to create stories about five nobodies whose lives were changed after encountering one of the great singers. From a 36-year-old ladies room attendant fixing Judy’s hem after her concert at Carnegie Hall to a young journalist interviewing Billie and an English librarian telling how her father saw Edith perform in a prison camp, each story is complete and perfect and, for everyone who has seen this show, now inseparable from the well-known songs that accompany them.
Robinson’s performance as ten different women is as magnificent as her singing and what makes this show so unforgettable is her seamless merge between characters without any hint of herself in between. For a work all about the performer, the performer is nowhere to be seen and she lets the five nobodies and five broken somebodies soak in the audience love.
This sadly leaves us with no idea who Bernadette is or how she sounds when she’s singing as herself. I’d have loved to see a sixth story or even an encore song, but I wonder if that revelation would take away from all that went before?
Songs For Nobodies is for Judy, Patsy, Edith, Billie and Maria fans and for anyone who hasn’t heard them. Robinson grasps what was unique and incredible about each singer and makes each song sound like it had never been sung before. It’s on in Melbourne until Sunday 13 January, then it’s off to Sydney and Adelaide.