Everyone in the theatre community knows the name Audra McDonald. She has won a record breaking 6 Tony Awards (being the only person to ever win in all four acting categories) and has finally made her way across the Atlantic to make her West End debut. This debut was due to take place last year but due to falling pregnant, her tony-winning performance as Billie Holiday was postponed to 2017. Now on a limited run at Wyndham’s Theatre, McDonald has brought her voice and acting talents to London in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill, and I just had to make sure I got the chance to see her perform in person.
Based on a real performance by Billie Holiday, also known as Lady Day, just months before she died, the audience are taken through her struggles from being abused as a child to her difficulties with alcohol. Similar to Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, this is a one-act play with musical interludes as opposed to a musical. Backed up by a fantastic jazz trio, McDonald’s vocal performances are interspersed between these stories. Despite her classical training, McDonald pulls off the jazz style that Lady Day is so well known for like it’s second nature. And not only is her voice something very special, her acting performance is just as wonderful. You really believe what is in front of you, which can’t always be said for when it comes to theatre.
As the play progresses, Lady Day gets drunker and the production becomes more powerful. The monologues become more tragic and you hear very little of her life successes. It’s a dark, intense play that definitely can’t be described as an entertaining watch. I’m thrilled to have been able to watch McDonald during her limited run, but it’s a difficult watch. It felt wrong to laugh at the lighter moments, especially as the play progressed, although clearly some of the other audience members didn’t feel the same way about this as I did.
I actually don’t know anything about Billie Holiday (as I’m sure is the case for most people my age, which would explain why I was one of the youngest audience members), so the play was a real eye opener. I have one word to sum up my experience watching this show: unforgettable. If you’re after a funnier show, definitely look at the other shows I’ve watched recently, but if you want something with heart then this could be a great option. But as seems to be the case with most productions I see, you’ve only got a few more weeks to get a show in as it is due to close on the 9th September!