Review by: Paul Towers, 30/8/17
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Written by Lanie Robertson, starring Audra McDonald
Wyndham’s Theatre, London until 9th September 2017
“a breathtaking performance”
This is an outstanding performance from a true superstar of an astonishing story.
Billy Holliday was a troubled person, a battered product of a truly harrowing period of American history when black people were treated like animals. Yet despite her appalling life, despite the appalling abuse heaped on her by white and blacks alike, despite the ravages of drink and drugs Lady Day, as she was nicknamed, used her unique voice to lift her to unimaginable heights only for her self abuse to plunge her straight back down into the gutter.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is set in a somewhat run down bar in Philadelphia in 1959 shortly before her death.
For this production several rows of seats have been removed and replaced with cabaret style tables and chairs with lamps to give the impression of being in the titular Bar & Grill, an American way of combining dinner and a show. To further foster the illusion some tables were on stage for patrons to be part of the performance.
It has to be said that Audra McDonald’s performance is breathtaking, an extraordinary portrayal of the battered talent which was Miss Billy Holliday in all its gut wrenching truth. Going from uplifting as her spirits soar and she sings like her heart is bursting to the very depths of her despair as Lady Day gradually falls apart before our eyes. The drink and drugs eating away at her very core.
Lanie Robertson wrote the script way back in 1986 and had successful runs in 1986 and 1987. It had a revival in 2005 but it was when Audra took on the role in 2014 that it was truly recognised as the masterpiece that it has now become. Audra McDonald won her sixth Tony in the role as well as an Emmy.