Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Wyndham’s Theatre

Audra McDonald and Shelton Becton in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London. Picture: Marc Bren

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill continues at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London until 9 September.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

Finally, after a year’s delay while its star produced an unexpected baby, the legendary Audra McDonald’s hypnotic re-creation of jazz singer Billie Holiday’s decline just a few months before her death at 44 is with us in an 11-week run – and worth the wait.

Although she came over for the Divas at the Donmar series in 1999, and in recent years has twice performed concerts at the Leicester Square Theatre, this is the West End acting debut of one of the world’s greatest musical voices with acting skills to match. You don’t win a record-breaking six Tonys unless you’re a bit special and McDonald is indeed very special.

Written in 1986, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – it’s a tatty nightspot in Holiday’s native Philadelphia, and one of the few left by 1959 where the singer feels comfortable – didn’t make it to Broadway until 2014 when it won McDonald Best Lead Actress in a Play.

Ironically for her legion of fans we don’’t get the rich McDonald voice in Lanie Robertson’s 90-minute musical play; instead, an extraordinary impersonation of Holiday as she dresses 15 of her most famous songs into anecdotes of the terrible way, as a woman of colour, she’s been abused virtually all her turbulent life.

At this raddled stage of her decline, 12 years after doing time for narcotics possession, the Holiday instrument is in a damaged state, but the eccentric phrasing, plaintive sound and little vocal catches remain, all suggested in McDonald’s exhausting performance.

Just learning what must add up to many thousands of words in a rather pedestrian script and delivering them to perfection is a feat on its own and her throwaway “I met a nice white person… once” and “They’re the same as us, only meaner” were bitter sweet in the context of the indignities she had to suffer from the white man in an all-too-short life.

McDonald’s only brief break comes when she heads for the dressing room, leaving her MD/pianist Shelton Becton and his cohorts Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass to have their solo moment.

It was a great idea by set designer Christopher Oram (or maybe director Lonny Price’s) to have audience members sitting drinking at tables onstage and where the first six rows of seats usually are, helping to create a nightclub image, even if those of us in the Royal Circle hadn’t a clue what was going on when McDonald ventured into the stalls.

But we did see her heading for the dressing room in mid-act, presumably in need of a heroin fix and then returning with her chihuahua Pepi, acted as if to the manor born by the incredibly cute Tilly. But did we really need it?

In truth, if it is not a great play, it is a profoundly depressing one. In showing Holiday back in a Philadelphia dive at the end of her career after being banned in New York, the author fails to balance the worst of times with what made Holiday unique at her peak.

Drunks and junkies’ jokes are never as funny as they think and, given Holiday’s limited vocal range and style, there is a sameness about some of the material.

‘Strange Fruit’, arguably the first of the great protest songs with its disturbing, “blood on the leaves”, “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze” and “sudden smell of burning flesh” images, still has a haunting power and the 1939 record became Holiday’s best seller.

But inevitably, almost 80 years on, the impact is less than when Abel Meeropol wrote the poem (and later the music) as a commentary on the racist lynchings that were rife in the Deep South.

Holiday herself gets a credit with Arthur Herzog on ‘God Bless the Child’, one of her biggest hits, as well as ‘Somebody’s on My Mind’ and ‘Don’t Explain’, and the up-tempo ‘Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer’, made famous by Bessie Smith but later recorded by Holiday, is a welcome change of pace from the general melancholy.

Mark Henderson’s inspired lighting of stage and star is well worth a mention and it was good to see a theatre packed to the rafters – even the boxes were full.

The standing ovation was thoroughly deserved for a genuine tour de force. It’s totally wonderful to have such a magnificent actress-singer in London for the rest of the summer but don’t go expecting a fun night out. It’s not meant to be easy listening – and it isn’t.

Jeremy Chapman

* Tickets for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill are available HERE.

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