Lady of Jazz
Ned Hopkins | 11 Oct 2019 21:57pm
If you’re putting on a show about a 1920s entertainer, you can’t do better than doing it in an old, artfully crumbling music hall where the ghosts of performers past lurk around every twisted barley sugar pillar.
The gifted collaboration of composer John Gleadall and playwright/lyricist Greg Mosse has been busy this year, touring three of their musicals: Team, Separate Ways – which enjoyed a successful run at the Camden Festival some weeks ago – and, currently, Lady of Jazz. The latter was at Wilton’s this week before travelling up North to the prestigious Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester.
The ‘Lady’ in question is Honey Grey, lead singer of her father’s band in Lafayette, Louisiana. The enticing handbill asks ‘Who is Honey Grey? Does she even know herself?’ You enter the theatre to a montage of slides projected on the back wall, setting the scene with historic photos of life in the South. Most telling is a sequence of images of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 – and slipped in, a photo of an African-American married to a white woman. To elaborate further would give too much away!
Set in a simple but atmospheric set, Act One shows Honey in her dressing room, reminiscing about her relationship with her parents and the various dramas that occur in her young life. It soon becomes apparent that Honey is turning into the main family breadwinner. Whilst she chats to the audience she draws in her accompanist, Frankie (the brilliant Tony Pegler, also responsible for the charming musical arrangements). Act Two takes us to Chicago with the Crash and repeal of Prohibition where Honey, by now a well-established performer, gives us a cabaret of much-loved jazz standards and pastiche songs.
Mosse’s beautifully crafted lyrics fit Gleadall’s catchy tunes like a glove and the book fully captures the undercurrent of racial and uncertain politics of the time and place. There is even the suggestion that Honey is capable of taking the law into her own hands. As Honey, newcomer Michaela Bennison is certainly a talent to watch. With an alluring Southern drawl, she works her audience well. It must be a daunting task to fill a space like this, but her assured and vivacious personality reaches out and totally disarms us. I especially enjoyed the conversations she has with her parents. She’s also helped by some excellent, at times dazzling costumes.
It is to be hoped that the exposure the show is getting around the country might lead to even bigger breaks for those involved – they fully deserve it.
Lady Of Jazz is currently touring the UK and will be playing at the Hope Mill Theatre: Monday November 11- Wednesday 13th 2019