Audra McDonald finally has made it to the West End after pregnancy delayed her debut and it is incredible to me that she isn’t more of a household name. Her claim to fame is her 6 Tonys, won for both musicals such as Carousel and for dramas like Raisin in the Sun. She remains the only actress to have done this. An achievement for any performer but unprecedented for a woman of colour. Her West end debut is a revival of one of her award winning performances as Billie Holiday. She plays Billie towards the end; tired, addicted and a bit of mess. She often reminded me of Amy Winehouse, a singer I adored who was always destined for a sad end. McDonald not only embodies Holiday’s emotional destruction through casual chat and casual drug use but also her unique voice. It felt like watching Holiday rather than watching an actress playing Holiday
The fabulous set helps, with on-stage seating and some of the seats removed for stalls tables, it feels less like a theatre show and more like a late night jazz show in Philadelphia. McDonald is aided Shelton Becton as her pianist Jimmy, whose frustration with Billie felt so real. There is an awareness that she is real talent (a songwriter as well as singer), who tried to break down racial barriers with her work with Artie Shaw and her bold songs like Strange Fruit but a woman who never stood a chance.
This is where I have mixed feelings on the play; a woman telling us about her life, even a fascinating one, doesn’t always work and Laine Robertson’s 1986 work seems less groundbreaking in a world of Wikipedia. The play is as good as its performers and this would work less well if there weren’t the songs. That isn’t to say the stories are played well; Holiday’s haunting relationship with her mother (“The Duchess”) as well as her failed marriages, relationships and her sadness at never becoming a mother feel like a woman confusing all before it is too late.
I came away moved but with a skip in my step. It is a rarity to see such a moving, skilled performance from an actress that makes you forget you are watching a matinee in London and not a woman falling apart. I hope Audra makes a return to the West End in a role that showcases her humour, her voice and her talent, as well as this, has.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at
First performance: 17 June 2017
Final performance: 9 September 2017
Press Performance: 27 June 2017
For full performance schedule see website: LadyDayWestEnd.com
Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45pm