Bette Midler… and Me continues at the Gilded Balloon until 31 August.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
This must be one of the most packed hour shows at Fringe 2015 – studded with an impressive catalogue of Bette Midler songs, this is a super cabaret style evening with three impressive ladies. The stage evokes what Giles Havergal used to call ‘tatty glamour’: sparkles and ostrich plumes, but nothing that could be termed ‘sophisticated’. This a more comfortable, less formal event.
Sue Kelvin is the ‘and Me’ of the title and is joined by the beguiling Sarah Travis and one of the best accompanists I have ever come across: Alex Young. The hour is a side-by-side of Midler’s life and times alongside Kelvin’s. And there are undeniable similarities.
Kelvin was clearly a great fan from an early stage and identified with Midler: “short, Jewish, fat and with a lot to say!” The script evokes Kelvin’s world in Didsbury really well – who from the 1970s doesn’t remember cheesecloth, for example? Or singing into hairbrushes ‘inventing lovers on the phone’? As she listens to Midler’s albums – both singing and speaking – Kelvin finds her role model. It seems almost destiny when one of her drama tutors tells her that she is like Bette Midler – clearly a moment that gave Kelvin great heart to continue for a successful professional stage career.
There are laughs aplenty in this hour, but there is also that undeniable thread of sadness: both Kelvin and Midler lost siblings way too soon and the changes in mood are used to great effect in the songs.
Sue certainly evokes Midler, but could never be termed a ‘tribute’ – rather her direct empathy allows her to ‘inhabit’ the artist and to use her own none too shabby talents to put the songs across with tremendous depth and emotional truth. When all three performers sing together, the songs reach sublime heights and are highly enjoyable. In the Ethel Merman numbers, Kelvin supersedes Midler – this gal can belt!
There is something of great merit here: the venue is not exactly ideal and a more sympathetic space would certainly help. It would also be interesting to hear a bit more about Kelvin’s life – just how did her granny know Sophie Tucker well enough to play cards with her whenever she was in the UK, for example?!
Thanks to Kelvin, Young and Travis – a thoroughly dazzling hour – and the ‘puppet Beaches’ will live long in the memory.
[Writer: Chris Burgess; Director: Paul Foster; Choreographer: Matthew Cole]