Tag Archives: Joanna Murray-Smith

“Songs for Nobodies” at the Ambassadors Theatre

Performing as five of the greatest singers of the 20th century counts as brave in anybody’s book, foolhardy almost. Yet Bernadette Robinson manages to do just that, rising to the challenge in appropriately stellar style. That she makes each impersonation seem so effortless is the first step in taking her solo show to another level of special.

There’s Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf and then Billie Holiday, with Maria Callas as a finale. What a line up. Arguably, Robinson’s challenge grows as the show’s 90 minutes progress, using the confidence she wins from the audience to her advantage. Each diva gets a song or two, impeccably arranged by Ian McDonald, and the musical side of the show is satisfying and entertaining.

But there’s more. Robinson’s clever move is in recruiting the talents of director Simon Phillips and playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. Allowing her acting to shine as much as her singing – no mean feat – the script is a series of cameos that feature the eponymous ‘nobodies’. Again, the variety is designed to impress; from an American journalist to an English librarian, women of different backgrounds and ages are all brought vividly to life as each recounts her encounter with a star.

Murray-Smith’s writing for these reminiscences can rightly be described as gem like. The short sketches take us to different times and places with crystal clarity. Each woman is star struck, which is repeatedly endearing, but the celebrities themselves, while convincingly magnetic, aren’t what this jeweller’s eye is studying. Full of humour and pathos, with a fair share of wisdom, it is these ordinary woman that interest most. The frank honesty of the monologues reflects the strange intimacy you can feel with a great performance from a big star. The move, from meeting a nobody to finding out they are a somebody, is inspiring every time. That’s just as big an achievement as the uncanny moments of vocal mimicry, making this a night of not five stars but ten.

Until 23 February 2019


Photo by Nick Brittain

“Switzerland” at the Ambassadors Theatre

Everybody loves the work of Patricia Highsmith, or at least they should. Joanna Murray-Smith’s play proves great fun imagining the great writer in old age, battling with her agent over a final novel starring her greatest creation, Tom Ripley. Connections between the charismatic villain on the run and two characters pinned down in a Swiss chalet make for an accomplished play that tries too hard at times, but is entertaining and worth catching.

It’s possible to be harsh about the piece. Given that it’s about a thriller writer, it’s too far away from gripping. A will-he-won’t-he-stay scenario for her publisher’s emissary, as Highsmith keeps trying to kick him out, becomes cloying. Even a fixation on weapons doesn’t add enough tension. Rather, the play’s strength is its comedy, and the elderly author gets some great lines full of barbed wit and wicked wisdom.

Switzerland is impeccably directed by Lucy Bailey, although she fails to inject a sense of threat. And it’s well-performed by Phyllis Logan and Calum Finlay. Murray-Smith warns about the danger of “over-playing” and both performers heed her advice, handling the occasionally flat characters and contrived scenario superbly.

The play overreaches with an ill-prepared headscratcher of a finale that comes too close to just plumping up the running time and inviting after-show discussion. The coda-like end feels unnecessary, and detracts from a considerable achievement. Taking us into the mind of Highsmith,extrapolating what the recluse might have been like, proves fascinating. Using biography and the writer’s oeuvre as a springboard for plenty of juicy ideas shows Murray-Smith’s talent and saves the play.

Until 5 January 2019


Photo by Nobby Clark