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Theatre Review: Songs for Nobodies
Songs for Nobodies, starring Bernadette Robinson. Picture: Supplied.

The effervescent Kate Ceberano says Bernadette Robinson's one-woman show, Songs for Nobodies, best characterises the personality of Ceberano's inaugural Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It's a big claim to make for one show at arguably the world's most prestigious effusion of cabaret artists but it's easy to see why she makes it.

The festival, directed for the first time by Ceberano, celebrates storytellers and divas - and there are plenty of both among the 50-odd acts that cavort across its 16 days.

Robinson's show, devised by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by longtime Melbourne Theatre Company supremo Simon Phillips, has five storytellers matched with five divas, and, in Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and the diva assoluta Maria Callas, it can't be accused of setting the bar too low.

Add to that the tidal wave of acclaim and house-full signs that swept this show into Adelaide (and later this week into Perth) and you can see why one reviewer gushed: "Songs for Nobodies is for everybody."

Except, I'm sorry to report, me.

The premise of the show is that five ordinary women, "nobodies", are changed by encounters with famous female performers. Half an hour in, along with an eager matinee audience in Adelaide's Her Majesty's Theatre, I was enthusiastically on the Nobodies bandwagon.

The first vignette tells of a brief conversation between Bea Appleton, a New York bathroom attendant, and Judy Garland, during running repairs on the hem of the star's gown. It's a beautifully constructed, gently and precisely told. Robinson, who is a fine character actor as well as an accurate vocal impersonator, nails both characters and is especially successful in drawing out their similarities as well as their differences. The segment's song, Come Rain or Come Shine, is nicely placed and authentically performed.

The next story lacks the polish of its predecessor but works neatly nevertheless.

Pearl Avalon is an usherette at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Kansas City on the night Patsy Cline gives her final performance - the singer died in a plane crash the following day. Pearl is called on stage by the star to sing backup on San Antonio Rose and Crazy. It's faintly improbable, but fun nevertheless, and Robinson gives her most convincing performances in the two country standards.

After that, though, the pieces lose their personality; indeed, in two of the three stories the characters don't even meet.

An English librarian recalls how Edith Piaf smuggled her father out of a nazi concentration camp (La Musique and, inevitably, Non, Je ne Regrette Rien); a young reporter interviews a disintegrating Billie Holliday (you guessed it, Strange Fruit and Lady Sings the Blues) and an Irish attendant on a private ship listens to Maria Callas from the other side of a cabin door (an overreaching Vissi d'Arte).

In none of these later stories was there any significant insight into either the ordinary woman or the star and the song selection continued the disturbing trend of reducing the great performers of the last century into one or two-hit wonders.

Murray-Smith and Philips have devised a potentially great vehicle for Robinson's undoubted talents. It's not her fault it runs out of gas so quickly. <div class="endnote">

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