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Life was no Holiday for talented Billie

Review by Paul Nelson

I THINK it is time to forget all those musical biographies that dwell on that tough ride to the top.

I am certain absolutely nobody had it harder than Billie Holiday, whose story is excellently told at the New End in Hampstead with it's new offering, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

We have had the hard luck stories before, the struggle to get to the top and out of the mire of a bad deal in life. Until now, to my mind, the most remarkable was the story of the Carpenters, focussing on Karen Carpenter at the Man in The Moon some time ago. That was a withers ringing yet admirable occasion.

At the New End, however, we are faced with a character who was raped at ten years old, scrubbed floors and ran errands for a brothel, and eventually became an item for sale in her own right.

This, from a woman whose 16-year-old mother married her 18-year-old father, when she herself was three.

The story progresses through many known facts and tells how she was discovered by failing a dance audition, but when asked, affirmed she could sing. It goes on through her husbands and many affairs, pulls no punches about her addiction to booze and heroin, her prison sentence, and her constant battle to be allowed to live her life, a life blighted by the label of drug abuser. She was even arrested on her deathbed!

The play, excellently written by Lanie Robertson, gives almost graphic pictures of amongst other things, touring with the Artie Shaw band all of whom refused to dine in the restaurant of a club where they were playing because Billie was not allowed in there on account of 'being coloured'.

It also pinpoints the difference between her mother and herself. This play uses the dramatic effect of Billie discovering a man, a man who was hers, and her mother, who never really did have a satisfactory husband for long, did not approve. That man, all the men in fact, are fictionalised into just one, plus her current male friend, her accompanist.

As it turned out Momma was right, he was an addict and introduced her to a life of marijuana and heroin, but she agreed to it because she truly believed he was hers and she his. Her husband was weak, she knew it, yet agreed to accompany him, as it turned out, to Hell.

Eventually, through him she was busted by the police and sent to gaol.

I remember reading her autobiography years ago, and being horrified that, at a time when drugs had broken her and she needed support, the singer Sarah Vaughan bluntly told her she was letting down the side. I could never listen to Vaughan again.

From my collection of Billie Holiday recordings, I have, I believe almost all of them, there is in this show a fair selection of her highs and lows. Omitted is Gloomy Sunday, known as 'the suicide song' (the BBC banned it), of which I am fond. Then, you cannot have everything, and the show is not a précis of her recordings, it is an honest portrait of a remarkable woman.

In this light, you have Dawn Hope, quite shatteringly playing Billie Holiday. Wisely, she has chosen not to try to mimic Holiday. How could anyone?

Instead, she sings the songs as if they were her own, as indeed they might well become. There is a distinct Broadway sound in her voice, so do not go expecting to hear the crushed tones of Billie Holiday. Go rather to hear and see a woman who totally understands her subject, is almost unimaginably ideal in putting across the spirit of Holiday, and, let's face it, selling herself, because as an artiste, that is what she is there to do. Dawn Hope is only terrific. She manages to capture the versatility of Holiday, in the sad as well as the bright songs. Her rapid vocalisation of Nobody's Business If I Do is a personification of the pressures and pleasures that eventually destroyed the jazz singer, considered by many to be the finest exponent of the genre ever.

It is fair to say I could listen forever to Dawn Hope when she sings songs like Easy Living, so good is she.

You end up with one of the most satisfying evenings in the theatre. I doubt there is anything in London that can hold a candle to this evening of pure delight, albeit tinged with horror.

Accompanying 'Billie Holiday' is 'Jimmy Powers', her last lover, playing piano superbly and impersonated by Warren Wills.

Between the two of them, this perfect evening is allowed to unfold.

For some sane reason the show is running for an almost unprecedented time of eight weeks at the New End, you have until September 8 to make up your mind to see and listen to it.

If you feel about it as I do, I fully expect you will go for a second helping, always assuming you will be able to get a seat in the first instance. It is a small theatre housing a big show. Quite an important night out.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson, Directed by Mark Clements. Musical Director Warren Wills, Set Design Chris Crosswell, Costume Design Colin Mayes, Lighting Design Alexandra Stafford, Sound Design Nick Greenhill, Press Representative KWPR, Graphic Design Andrew Connolly, WITH Dawn Hope (Billie Holiday), Warren Wills (Jimmy Powers). The Derby Playhouse Production presented by Brian Daniels & Andrew Connolly for Stars and Angels Ltd with New End Theatre at New End Theatre, 27 New End, Hampstead, London NW3. Tickets 020 7794 0022.


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