Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
It was 31 years ago that a rising young talent called Sharon D Clarke understudied the lead in the first West End production of Blues in the Night. Now, two Oliver awards later and fresh off two huge hits (Caroline or Change and Death of a Salesman) Ms. Clarke returns to it and her star quality is the jewel in the crown of this long overdue revival.
Conceived by the acclaimed American theatre and TV director Sheldon Epps it first appeared off Broadway in 1980. Like Ain't Misbehavin' before it, it's an early 'jukebox' show but doesn't confine itself to a single composer. Instead, it's a showcase for the timeless blues songs by the likes of Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, composed in the interwar years by African American artists including Smith but also the likes of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. These songs gave voice to the southern African American diaspora which had migrated north to cities like Chicago.
The book, which is a mere sliver, interweaves the lives and loves of three women – The Lady (Clarke), The Woman (Debbie Kurup) and The Girl (Gemma Sutton) told through the songs. It being the blues they generally bemoan their "no good" men folk and here Clive Rowe (impeccable as usual) incarnates a sort of generalised feckless 'Man'.
Robert Jones' beautifully evocative set combines the three separate lonely rooms of these women and the lobby of a now down-at-heel hotel where they've ended up. The bar is frequented by a swarthy Hustler (Aston New) and lithe young Barman (Joseph Poulton). These sometimes double as the ladies various paramours but director Susie McKenna, in a neat revisionist slant, has cast dancers in these roles and one routine is a sultry same-sex one.
The piece is a hymn to the Blues so first and foremost it's about the quality of the singing. Sutton brings a touching vulnerability to her, mostly, lovestruck character although the emotional pitch of 'Takin a Chance on Love' is a tad too high. Kurup's character is more worn down by life, and we witness her heroin addiction, but none the less she is just as starry eyed as the young girl in her pursuit of Mr Right. Too often it's a pursuit of the worst kind, as when she sings 'Rough and Ready Man'.
The pain is carefully interspersed however with some wonderfully louche uptempo numbers such as Rowe's 'Wild Women Who Don't Have the Blues', in which he showcases just how light on his feet he is, and Clarke's joyful wallow in the pure smut of every line from Bessie Smith's classic 'Kitchen Man'.
When the three women harmonise such as in 'Am I Blue' or 'Lover Man' the top class musical credentials of this show are clear to see. Mark Dickman on piano leads a stonking 5 piece onstage band and Dickman's orchestrations are perfectly attuned to the spectrum of blues music styles which are required here. He avoids too much of a musical theatre styling which would have jarred.
Needless to say the West End veterans Rowe and Clarke really show how it is done and when Clarke tackles the 'Wasted Life Blues' she transforms it into an epic Shakespearean soliloquy in Blues. It brings the house down.