Why exactly is Songs for Nobodies called Songs for Nobodies? After all, the likes of Judy Garland (1922-1969), Patsy Cline (1932-1963), Edith Piaf (1915-1963), Billie Holliday (1915-1959) and Maria Callas (1923-1977) are hardly ‘nobodies’, even if there is now a generation of people – and I must, for better or for worse, include myself in this – who were born after these lady singers had passed. Of course, I quickly realised that the show is called Songs for Nobodies, not Songs Sung By Nobodies, so clearly the ‘nobodies’ must refer to people other than the singers.
Five characters are introduced, one by one, a monologue by an apparent ‘nobody’. By the end of the show, to be honest, I found the whole ‘nobodies’ thing a tad insulting. Beatrice Ethel Appleton, for instance, is described as a lavatory attendant, while Pearl Avalon, whose story follows Appleton’s, is an usher at a concert venue (if I recall correctly) who also has ambitions of being a professional singer. Why would such occupations make these people ‘nobodies’? Aside from being fictional characters, the suspension of disbelief at the front door of the theatre, and the way in which their stories are told by Bernadette Robinson, in quite some detail, suggests that far from being ‘nobodies’, they were capable people who made a difference to their communities and those they interacted with. Nobodies? Pah! I shall let the feminists have a field day with the implications of calling hard-working, law-abiding women ‘nobodies’. (Would they have been nobodies if they had been men? Discuss.)
And breathe. This isn’t so much a play as a series of disconnected sketches, accompanied by songs. Robinson is extraordinary in putting across the styles and mannerisms of the different singers, demonstrating excellent versatility. I thought she did Piaf better than anyone else. An Australian performer, Robinson puts in a near-perfect British accent when playing the part of Edie Belamotte, who told a remarkable story about her father’s escape from the Third Reich thanks to the quick-thinking actions of Piaf after a concert she gave to some Second World War Troops.
The band is led by Greg Arrowsmith, with only two other musicians, Matthew Whittington and Oliver Weston. Both the acting and singing skills on Robinson’s part are abundantly evident, though I found myself rather disengaged with the narratives, which were mostly of people in awe of whichever singer it is that their story is related to. This gave the play as a whole a relentlessly positive bias. Given the fictional nature of the stories, it would have varied the tone of the show to have at least one person who perhaps didn’t particularly enjoy every aspect of a given singer’s personality and back catalogue but, thanks to common decency and civility, respected them as human beings and treated them well regardless of their personal views.
As a performance, though, there’s nothing to complain about. It’s a little too much of a slow burner for my personal taste, but with simple yet effective staging and an immensely talented performer, songs from a previous generation come alive, afresh and anew, in a delightful ninety-minute foray into the past.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.