Sunday, 10 June 2018

REVIEW: Cafe Society Swing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

The Theatre Royal Stratford is an iconic venue with a chequered history. Opened in 1884 it was faced with many difficult times but was made famous by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop Company from 1953 to 1975. In 1993 it enjoyed yet another refurbishment which renovated and restored the original tongue and groove pine panelling cladding the stalls and was given Grade II * listed status. It glorious deep red colouring and beautiful chandelier (donated by Donald Albery in 1963) is a wonderful evocative setting for variety and drama but with the gently curved rows of stalls seats does not feel like a New York night club.

Cafe Society was an equally ground breaking venue in New York with a difficult history due to the political and social context of its time. The UnAmerican Activities Committee was investigating behaviours in a search for Reds under the bed and the club owners and many artistes were summoned to appear before it. Equally the media were trying to expose the clubs and its owner Barney Josephson. The club operated from 1938 to 1948 and was the first racially integrated jazz club in New York. As the narrator explains this was a time when the great Duke Ellington had to enter the Cotton Club via the kitchen and played in front of entirely white audiences.

Alex Webb, the musical director has written and arranged the piece (including some seamlessly integrated original numbers) in a twenty five long song list. The format is not dramatic or a play but a concert style with singers centre stage backed by eight musicians and a narrator downstage left. The sound is lovely with soulful smooth voices and wonderful brass solos by Dave Bitelli (sax), Sue Richards (trumpet) and Tony Kolfi (alto sax). Cyro Brown plays guitar and all the male singers but it a trio of female singers that steal the show. Vimala Rowe features mainly as Billie Holiday, Judi Jackson features mainly as Lena Horne and China Moses features as Sarah Vaughan.

There are great classics from Billie Holiday like “All of me” and “Yesterdays”, Lena Horne singing the sultry “Stormy weather” and Rodgers/Hart’s “Where or When”, Count Basie’s “I left my baby”, and Sarah Vaughan rendition of Cole Porter’s classic “What is this thing called love”. The venue made and saved the careers of Billie Holiday and Lena Horne.
The story telling is by Peter Gerald, in Act 1 as a journalist trying to dish the dirt on the club but falling in love with it and Act 2 as a bartender observing all the acts and only occasionally do the performers come together. It is these moments that hint at what this production could be developed into as a dramatic story line. We hear of Paul Robeson’s love of the club, the great comics who entertained there and of the great visitors to the club like Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly but we meet none of them. There are stories of poverty and slavery and a great line that “my mother only ever served me leftovers but the original meal was never found!”

Musically this is a very enjoyable and satisfying production but I wanted it to either develop into a full drama or if it remains in concert format it needs to find
a cabaret venue with audience seated at tables and served by bar tenders. It almost summed itself up in Alex Webb’s own composition which opens Act 2 “Wrong place, right people”.

However the production is drawn to a conclusion with the song Billie Holiday closed her set in a single white spot, “Strange Fruit”which really sums up the social context of the Club and the potential for this fascinating story.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh”

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: F | Price of Ticket: £19.20
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