THEATRE REVIEW: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill starring Audra McDonald


WHERE: Wyndham’s Theatre

WHEN: 17/6, press night 27/6, runs to 9/9

SETLIST: I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone; When A Woman Loves A Man; Crazy He Calls Me; Gimme A Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer); Baby Doll; God Bless The Child; Foolin’ Myself; Somebody’s On My Mind; Easy Livin’; Strange Fruit; Blues Break; T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do; Don’t Explain; What A Little Moonlight Can Do; Deep Song

It’s March 1959 and Billie Holiday is singing in South Philadelphia at the titular run-down bar in one of her last performances before her death just four months later.

  • Read on for reasons including what the view from the 2nd row of cabaret-style seating is like

Audra McDonald has already won a Tony (a record breaking sixth) and Emmy for her performance in this 2014 revival of a 1986 original in which she sings as Holiday, accompanied by Jimmy Powers on the piano, and also tells stories about her life.

We saw one of Amy Winehouse’s last gigs at the Eventim Apollo and there are many parallels to draw here. McDonald is so convincing here that it’s like encountering two diva-sized performers in one evening.

Between songs we learn that Holiday was raped as a child, comes from a history of slavery, married the wrong man who caused her to be jailed and encouraged her drug addiction. The anecdotes also reveal what it was like to be a black woman in 50s America, able to pay twice the price charged to a white woman to be able to dine in a restaurant but not able to use the toilet there.

It doesn’t sound funny but there is humour here and we’re laughing not least at the description of white people as mean with their black on the inside.

And then there are the songs – and that voice. It’s original and clearly the material influenced Winehouse but so also did Holiday’s delivery.

During this onstage re-creation of one of Holiday’s last gigs we witness her descent into alcoholism but also what a talent she was. There’s much tragedy – not least her unrealised ambition to be a mother.

Magical is not an adjective we use often in our theatre reviews but it’s perfect to describe this 90-minute encounter without interval.

We’re in the second row of the cabaret-style seating and McDonald passes amongst us as she clears her own glass and looks for another to devour – and on a mission for a cigarette.

It’s an unforgettable West End debut and a must-see for jazz fans but its appeal is universal and we wouldn’t be surprised if this didn’t extend its three-month run.

  • Picture via Facebook courtesy Lady Day. Tickets
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