“Blues in the Night” is a compilation revue, a tribute to the black performers and music of Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. Loosely strung on a plot involving three women who have all had a relationship with the same heel of a man, the dialogue-less show consists of a series of classic numbers which fall into two categories: full-on blues, mostly written and performed originally by Bessie Smith, and torch songs, anthems of female masochism, several of which share the distinction of being covered by the great Billie Holiday. Though the plot briefly resurfaces at the end of the show to provide the obligatory upbeat ‘I’m-Getting-My-Act-Together’ Broadway finale, what really matters is the string of pearls in between. And success/failure depends entirely on the quality of performance.
There was an astonished, rapt hush in the audience, the kind of quality of attention you might witness once every ten years. A performance it was a privilege to watch.
No BS, these performances are triumphant. The greatest weight of the show is carried by Sharon D Clarke, in ‘been-there-done-that’ mode. She wryly observes the other gals making fools of themselves, with the occasional nod at nostalgia and the days when she played the ‘chitlin’ circuit’, segregated venues for black performers and audiences. Many of the songs in the show are started by a featured singer only to be carried on by ensemble harmonies; this makes it harder for individuals to register. Clarke gets more genuine solos and therefore more opportunities.
Supreme among them is Smith’s ‘Wasted Life Blues’, the emotional heart of the show and a lyric of unrivalled bleakness:
I've lived a life but nothin' I've gained
Each day I'm full of sorrow and pain
No one seems to care enough for poor me,
To give me a word of sympathy
Oh, me! Oh, me! Wonder what will become of poor me?
In its unrelenting nihilism it rivals Schubert’s Hurdy-Gurdy Man struggling alone through the frozen landscape at the conclusion of ‘Winterreise’. Carol Woods’ performance of ‘Wasted Life Blues’ in the original British Cast Recording has become a staple of ‘show-stoppers’ mixes compiled by musicals buffs, and she casts a long shadow. Clarke’s version caps it. Not so virtuosic vocally, she is more concentrated, more focussed on an emotional journey and builds brilliantly over eight epic minutes to a distillation of anguish. There was an astonished, rapt hush in the audience, the kind of quality of attention you might witness once every ten years. A performance it was a privilege to watch.
Everyone else is left somewhat in the shadows, through no fault of their own. To the only white performer, Gemma Sutton, go the more jazzy numbers, rather 1950s-inflected. She has a wondrous flexibility of timing and manages to make ‘I Want to Be Someone’s Baby’ both comic and rather frightening in its nymphomaniac desperation. Clive Rowe as the token man comes off best in the comic patter songs and long-forgotten novelty numbers which manage to turn demotic speech into a kind of poetry. Mr Rowe – how shall I put it politely? – is very much built for comfort rather than speed and it seems something of a nonsense that he should be a sex/love object for these strong, attractive gals. He responds by largely playing it for laughs in a performance owing something to Fats Waller and something to Little Joe in ‘Cabin in the Sky’. But hell, who cares about plausibility when you have one stunning musical number tumbling over another.
The band is hot, though I could have done with more of the trumpet and sax; the piano accompaniment by leader Mark Dickman is sensitive and atmospheric. You can always tell a good band when the audience stay in their seats during the play-out music. Nobody left. The whole thing is a pure – and occasionally dirty – joy from start to finish.