It’s unusual – strikingly unusual – for a West End production not to hire understudies, but there are no understudies here: Audra McDonald is the main event, and her uncanny, goosebump-inducing, devastating embodiment of Billie Holiday is more than worth whatever you pay for your ticket. This is less a play than a performance; McDonald is astonishing, and that’s just as well, because the writing underneath is rather on the thin side.
That’s partly dictated by the format. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill recreates one of Billie Holiday’s late-career performances in a bar in Philadelphia (we’re told in a programme note that the playwright’s partner saw one such performance in 1959, a few months before Holiday’s death). A visibly intoxicated Holiday staggers on, stumbles through a few songs, and in her between-song patter delivers the story of her life. As written by Lanie Robertson, it’s more than a little contrived, although Robertson mercifully steers well away from the luridly purple invented scenes that characterise Peter Quilter’s awful End of the Rainbow, which takes a not-dissimilar look at Judy Garland’s demise. Robertson’s Lady Day is drunk and rambling and visibly impaired, and – for better or worse – presented without editorialising. There’s no other point of view on the stage, save the occasional interjection from Sheldon Becton as Holiday’s musical director, and that’s possibly no bad thing, given the way invented dialogue in celebrity biographies so often descends into melodramatic sludge. There’s just Billie Holiday, performing her life for patrons in a bar.
And that, unfortunately, is where the artful artifice of Lonny Price‘s production starts to fray around the edges. Despite a terrific barroom set by Christopher Oram, with patrons seated onstage and nightclub tables filling the (more) expensive half of the stalls, the show simply doesn’t sit very well in an elegant late-Victorian jewel-box like Wyndham’s. The venue is too pretty and (although it’s hardly one of the West End’s biggest houses) too large, and despite the best efforts of the director, the designer, and McDonald herself, it’s difficult to recreate the intimacy necessary for this piece in a theatre that seats 750 people on four levels (if you see this – and you should – you really need to sit downstairs). The proscenium arch doesn’t help; Robertson’s text works strenuously to maintain the illusion that we’re watching a performance in a nightclub; even from the back of the stalls, you simply aren’t close enough. The production cries out for a smaller, less ostentatiously pretty, more flexible venue, but such places are in relatively short supply in London. The Young Vic would have been ideal, but it possibly doesn’t quite fit their mission – and for a limited season the numbers may well not have added up in a venue with half the number of seats.
And in any case, McDonald’s performance is so jaw-dropping that it almost feels like bad manners to quibble at any element of the production surrounding her, even though some elements of it are undoubtedly problematic. Her mastery of Billie Holiday’s very individual vocal mannerisms is astonishing – all the more so when you consider the basic nature of McDonald’s voice, because Billie Holiday really wasn’t a Juilliard-trained soprano. It’s not simply a vocal impersonation, though – McDonald gets under Holiday’s skin and delivers a haunting, haunted portrayal of a star on the verge of self-destruction. There’s a smattering of Holiday’s best-known songs here, of course, and McDonald’s delivery of them is beyond reproach; what you’ll remember, though, isn’t the voice, so much as the intensity. Strange Fruit, in particular, is a riveting, chilling performance, but you’ll learn as much about Holiday from the moment at the song’s conclusion where McDonald shoots a disgusted glare at her music director for having just forced her to sing it. McDonald’s Billie Holiday is a walking open wound, and singing this song wounds her further.
If this makes it sound as though the performance is all darkness, it shouldn’t. Certainly, Billie Holiday’s life story is bleak, and neither Robertson nor McDonald shy away from that, but McDonald makes Holiday’s interactions with her audience in her more lucid moments thoroughly charming, and finds – almost unbelievably – considerable bawdy humour in a story about a southern restaurant hostess’s horrific racism. Even in a space that isn’t quite appropriate for the production, this works – Price’s unobtrusive direction makes the best of both the piece and the difficult venue, the three musicians are terrific, and McDonald herself is giving a performance for the ages. It’s a shame the production surrounding her isn’t quite as perfect as she is, but it doesn’t matter: you’re here for the star, and the star more than delivers.