Blues in the Night
Kiln Theatre, 31st July 2019
Right. I’ll cut to the chase. Blues in the Night isn’t really a work of drama. Or really musical theatre. It is a nostalgic revue purporting to tell the story of three women, the Lady (Sharon D Clarke), the Woman (Debbie Kurup) and the Girl (Gemma Sutton), who have been variously misused by men in their lives, holed up in a cheap, seedy hotel in pre-war Chicago. They are joined by the spivish Man (Clive Rowe), who they have all encountered, a couple of hustler/bartender types (Aston New and Joseph Poulton) and, surprise, surprise, an on-stage band. With minimal spoken narrative, barely any characterisation and no real story to speak of, these archetypes proceed to sing and dance their way, in various combinations, through 25 mostly torch, blues and jazz standards over the course of a couple of hours.
To be fair I doubt that African-American director Sheldon Epps intended any more than this when he first dreamt this up in 1980. This is a vehicle to showcase the music and, to a lesser extent, and less successfully, highlight the plight of the three women it portrays. It first appeared in London at the Donmar in 1987, to some acclaim, but this is its first revival for 30 years.
So, providing you bear all that in mind, and don’t go expecting much in the way of interaction between the characters, or much insight into their inner lives beyond mooching about their lost “loves”, drowning their sorrows in whiskey and fags or boasting about their conquests, then you are in for a treat. Or you would have been if you had seen it before the run ended. The set design of Robert Jones, which foregrounds the “bedrooms” of the three women where many of the songs are performed (with a fully stocked bar at the back!), the on-stage band of Shaney Forbes (drums), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (sax, clarinet, flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass, led by Mark Dickman on piano, and the sprightly direction of Susie McKenna, are all excellent. Lotte Collett’s costumes also hit the mark.
Gemma Sutton’s voice is a little underpowered compared to Debbie Kurup’s, though the tiresome stereotype of the Girl did her no favours. Clive Rowe though can swing and manages somehow to conjure up the bumptious cockiness of the Man from next to no material, with a fine voice especially in lower registers.
But let’s be honest. The main (only?) reason to see this was Sharon D Clarke. She doesn’t have much opportunity to display her formidable acting skills but who cares given that voice. The stand out is when she gets to sing Wasted Life Blues. “Wonder what will become of poor me”. Close your eyes and Bessie Smith (above) could be in the house. OK so this isn’t really close to her extraordinary performance in Caroline, Or Change, or in the title role in NT’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or even as Linda Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman, (my theatrical highlight of this or any other year is hearing her rebuke Biff and Happy when they mock Willy), but it is still tremendous stuff. Go see her outshine the rest of the cast and blow the roof off in a West End musical potboiler or watch her define “hidden depths” on the telly for sure, but ideally catch her in something like the above, with a bit more dramatic heft, to see just how she commands the stage, singing or speaking.
The other songs written by Ms Smith, Baby Doll, Blue, Blue, Dirty No-Gooder Blues, It Makes My Love Come Down, Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out and Reckless Blues, also outshine the contributions of the other composers but it’s still pretty hard not to enjoy the likes of Kitchen Man (Ms Clarke saucing it up), Harold Arden’s eponymous Blues in the Night or Lover Man.
The SO, who is partial to both Ms Clarke and the Kiln, agreed. Looked good, sounded great, eminently forgettable.