Direction: Ross Gumbley (written by Joanna Murray-Smith)
Circa Theatre; Circa One (July 7 – August 4) [Ali-Cat Productions Ltd]
Ali Harper here performs ten roles, a dozen voices, as – variously – the famous singers Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. But she is also the “nobodies”, women star-struck or down on their luck – or both. Women eager to one day be famous, or at least successful. They have chance-encounters with their heroes. It is their stories that we’re hearing, at least to begin with.
Harper is magnificent – effortlessly switching up Midwest and New York accents, adding Irish and Nottingham as the characters switch. She will then flick, in an instance, from the speaking voice of a fictional, fast-talking Big Apple journalist to the stoned-over drawl of Billie Holiday. What’s more she’ll tackle Strange Fruit – and nail it.
Harper’s star turn in this production is open-to-close mesmerising. She’s backed by a local trio of talented musicians (Johnny Lawrence, double bass; Lance Philip, drums and percussion; Daniel Hayles, piano) and her only on-stage prop is a single chair.
But we never see Ali Harper at all. We meet the English librarian Edie Delamore, whose father, a member of the French resistance, was saved by Edith Piaf (Little Sparrow). We meet Orla the nanny from the Emerald Isle, charged with assisting Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. We get to know the dreams and ambitions of a theatre usherette turned backing vocalist, and the lavatory attendant that’s quick and careful with a needle and thread. We get to hear from Garland and Piaf and we get to hear the stories of hardship (Holiday) and sadness (Cline).
But we never see or hear Ali Harper.
This is the highest compliment I can think to give – she’s simply not there. Not that you can notice. The brown wig hiding her natural hair colour, her face shifting to make the punch-drunk grimace of Billie Holiday, stoned-over and loosey-goose; her posture perfect as the nearly-uptight, almost matronly Patsy Cline. It’s a tour-de-force set of performances that exists in tribute to the fine writing of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and to these women, both the “somebodies” and the nobodies.
The iconic songs – Come Rain or Come Shine, Crazy, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien – the powerful storytelling, the indelible character-sketching; this is a must-see show, tender, thoughtful, wise.
And with Tosca’s Vissi D’Arte to conclude we are taken out on a veritable high note.