GLITTER AND HARD GRAFT
A basement hung with glitter strings, a small moody band with earthy bass, a bar: few better places to revel in torch songs, deep-dug anthems and memory of bygone stars who flared and burnt and are not forgotten . Up in the back row on the high seats, feet on the bar and can in your fist you can even fancy yourself in any smoky bar from 1930 onwards. Good old Jermyn: just the spot for Issy Van Randwyk’s tribute to women who got out there in warpaint, feathers or wild hippie hair to dig deep and fling out passion to a dull hard world. Frankly , it was about time “cis” women reclaimed the great diva images from drag queens (and no, officer, that’s not a hate- crime, I love drag dearly, always have, but we need some Issys out there as well to rock their full-on femalehood).
Nobody is fitter for the job than van Randwyck, after years not only acting but on the cabaret circuit (the only “real” girl at Madame Jojos for a spell, and central to Fascinating Aida). This time she is not satirical but sincere in tribute, with a wide vocal range to conjure up women across the decades from Billie Holiday to Dusty Springfield: blues, jazz, country, rock and pop. It is not impersonation but loving memory, despite some uncanny moments of reality: she breaks off between songs, or even phrases, with a gentle, idiosyncratic narrative of the lives behind the music. That young Billie Holiday had to sell herself for $5 a time to live, that J Edgar Hoover and the narcotics police persecuted her after “Strange Fruit” and had her handcuffed to her hospital bed: these things we should know as we listen. That “Ain’t nobody’s business” had lines about “not calling no copper if I’m beaten up by my poppa” is relevant to the times, and should suffer no airbrushing.
Then suddenly, taking a swig from a bottle and dashing on some lipstick, van RAndwyck becomes Monroe, her voice little-girl breathy, the narrative half-mischievous half-dark, hinting at what surrounded her, at the dangers of generosity and having to sell to predatory men and a predatory business. I had not known the song from the Western “River of no return”, but again, falling as it did after a mention of Marilyn’s lost pregnancies and quiet enrolment to UCLA literature courses, it had weight: a brilliant choice. . Then shazam! On with a cowboy hat and a grainier, deeper voice and it’s the tale and sound of Patsy Kline: mercifully after those two victim-sacrifices, a roughneck “with a mouth on her would embarrass a truck driver”, as a Nashville colleague admiringly put it. And just as you’re wondering if the narrator-singer’s voice can get any wilder, here’s a flourish of an ostrich stole and it’s Janis Joplin, boozing and drugging and growling and roaring and digging deep in the music “not floatin’ on top like a chick”…
And on we go after a brief interval: Mama Cass, big and glorious, pushed about by bandmates, making “her own kinda music” till she died at 32. And – with great emotional feeling from the singer – Karen Carpenter, whose honey-smooth intimate melodious sound van Randwyk reproduces almost eerily while reminding us that poor shy Karen always thought of herself first as “a drummer who sang”, and was once reader-polled as better than Led Zeppelin’s drummer, so there. And at last Dusty Springfield, “food-throwing, football-loving” 1960’s icon at 23, flashing black-lined eyes, breaking into the US before the Beatles did, declining into mental chaos and a tooth-smashingly violent love affair, having an 80’s comeback and in her last days rising at dawn to go to Heathrow to watch the ‘planes, and remember past travels. The last song – in yet another brilliant judgement by the singer and her director Ed Hall – is “Goin’ back’ with its wistful nostalgia for the freshness the world shows only to youth.
It’s a simple show, two hours, just telling some stories and singing some songs with sisterly admiration and no affectation. But it stays with you, making you reflect on an emotional history the rest of us share and fed from: women who blazed into the age of mass entertainment, mostly died absurdly young, were adored and abused, flawed and fabulous, conduits for the music of the passions. There are three more performances this week. Get on down there.
Box office. Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk