Blues In The Night

“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.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

Charing Cross Theatre

Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris

★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

Return of the Soldier

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Eye of a Needle

★★★★
Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Trial of the Jew Shylock

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

In The Heights

★★★★

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Chicago 1939. One man, three women, their lives, memories and the music that gets them through the night. A scorching compilation of 26 hot blues numbers including 'When a Man Loves a Woman', 'Wasted Life Blues', 'Taking a Chance on Love' and 'Blues in the Night'. Starring the Olivier Award winner Sharon D Clarke, Paulette Ivory, Clive Rowe and Gemma Sutton.

Most Popular See More

Frozen the Musical

From £29.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Play That Goes Wrong

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Come From Away

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Pretty Woman: The Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Mamma Mia!

From £18.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Dear Evan Hansen

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets