- The Forge
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Ross Gumbley
Musical Direction by Richard Marrett
Featuring Ali Harper
Running time: 90 minutes, no interval.
Click here to see our post-show dessert menu.
From the team behind Bombshells comes a one-woman tour de force starring Ali Harper.
Share in five life-changing encounters between legendary divas and the everyday women whose lives they touched, interspersed with the songs that made Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday and Maria Callas icons of our age.
Songs for Nobodies is a one-of-a-kind showcase that reminds us that everyone has a story – and a song – worth hearing.
“All five singers were renowned for their conviction, and Murray-Smith’s ”nobodies” echo this with their heart-warming honesty. Songs for Nobodies leaves one exultant, and should not be missed.” – John Shand, Sydney Morning Herald
“This whirlwind of common humanity decorated by song and wonderful dialogue belongs to the writer Joanna Murray-Smith.”- Rose Hodson, Australian Stage
“An evening with Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas? Yes please.” – Jason Whitaker, Curtain Call
Here is a reminder for we foolish mortals who forgot (or forgot to remember), that a gorgeous, gifted goddess walks among us. And her name is Ali Harper.
When The Court Theatre sought the New Zealand rights for Songs for Nobodies, its Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith agreed on the proviso that Ali Harper starred in it. How right she was about how right she is.
If left to his druthers, director Ross Gumbley may well have come to that casting decision too, because Harper is perfect in this multifarious role. Or rather, these roles…
In this one-woman play, five encounters between five (real) legendary divas and five more mundane (fictional) women whose lives they affected are produced by one incredible actor on a bare stage. It’s reminiscent of Jane Horrocks’ feat in Little Voice (based on Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice), but this goes beyond musical mimicry.
Non-stop for 90 minutes, Harper holds the audience in the palm of her lily white hand, as she transports us more than 60 years from New York City to England to somewhere in the Mediterranean.
She barely leaves the stage, as she seamlessly gifts us five distinctly different “nobodies” and five famous chanteuses’ musical styles with only the backing of a talented trio (literally) behind her – musical director Richard Marrett on keyboards, Tim Sellars drums, and double bassist Michael Story.
Starting with a Ladies Room attendant in 1961 and her chance meeting with a not-so-exuberant Judy Garland, we’re then taken to a pivotal encounter between a generous, superstitious Patsy Cline and a theatre usher with a great voice in 1963 Kansas City.
The Little Sparrow herself, Edith Piaf, and her extraordinary connection with an English librarian in 2010 follows.
Then we’re sent way back to 1947, where a “Too Junior” New York Times reporter is desperately trying to get her big break and a feature profile out of a formidably unforthcoming Billie Holiday.
All this incredible woman’s work is topped off by a young Irish nanny’s gig on the Onassis’s luxury ship and her close encounter with the uber-rich and famous, including Maria Callas.
From belting out a stirring Non, je ne regrette rien to delivering a moving and disturbing jazz trio of Strange Fruit, Lady Sings the Blues and Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, Harper is nothing short of sublime.
They’re all so, so good but as Callas, she is show-stopping.
The minimalist set (translucent walls and one chair) allows Harper’s singular talent to shine, with clever lighting key to the changes in characters and songs.
One of the few signs that the heavenly Harper may actually be human after all is that on opening night she was subtly battling a cold. So subtly, in fact, that I’ll wager few of the audience noticed.
Part of the sound crew’s skill must have been tested in turning the sound down quickly enough to mask any discreet nose blowing.
The one-woman/10-woman show must go on and this captivating quintet of amusing, dramatic monologues and superb songs is a must-see.
All of Christchurch should rush to worship at the altar of the divine Ms H.
– Review by Margaret Agnew for What’s Up NZ
Penned by Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, Songs for Nobodies is a tribute to five female musical legends: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas (all of whom died prematurely: Cline at 30, Billie Holiday at 44, Garland and Piaf at 47, and Maria Callas at 54). The play is superb; a brilliant, simply structured stage celebration.
Although it is essentially a one-woman show (there are three live musicians) it is much more than a revue or concert; Songs for Nobodies is an engaging, poignant and, at times, humorous dramatic presentation of ten characters.
This remarkably assured production does not rely on props, flamboyant makeup, loud costume changes or fireworks, it relies on sheer talent – on the hard won decades-long accumulated skills of acting, singing, voice work, stage presence and dramaturgical acumen of Ali Harper. In fact there would be few performers who could manage this production but Ali Harper wears it like a glove which could have been fashioned for her and for her alone.
We should also acknowledge the inspired hand of the Director. “I knew it would be perfect for Ali Harper’s talent and range,” says Court Theatre Artistic Director, Ross Gumbley, “and Murray-Smith agreed, in fact she insisted that if we were to stage Songs for Nobodies, it could be only with Ali, and that is how we exclusively won the rights to stage Songs for Nobodies in New Zealand.”
Like so many, I have enjoyed Ali Harper’s performances over many years but in this production we are transfixed by a performer at her peak. In fact she is so good that at times, I hardly recognise her – she has become the alter egos she represents. Ten personalities, ten accents, varying from New York, mid-West, England and Ireland. And she channels the essence of each of the five musical legends in posture and song. What a vocal range, what fine handling of the various styles she has to sing, what poise and stage presence she brings to each vignette. What an absolute star.
This is a demanding role, though you would hardly know it, given her mastery of the material. From the outset you are invited into an intimate relationship with a sympathetic ‘nobody’ who, to her utter amazement, finds herself in the same public washroom as Judy Garland, and the scene unfolds beautifully, believably, as Ali Harper plays both characters in dialogue. She has us from that first exchange and she does not let up for the whole performance.
My favourite character is Edie Delamore, a librarian from West Bridgford, Nottingham, who recounts a personal family link with Edith Piaf. ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday is a powerful moment in the show, and the humour and poignancy of the philosophising young Irish nanny, Orla McDonagh, on board the Onassis yacht in the Mediterranean, is a delight.
Legend or nobody, it’s part of the human condition to struggle – we all struggle. As Patsy Cline notes, “Applause don’t help you when you’re in your bed at night.”
Superbly directed, who needs props, costume changes or elaborate sets with such evocative lighting effects (designed and operated by Sean Hawkins). Songs for Nobodies is supported by three unobtrusive, yet essential, musicians: Musical Director Richard Marrett on piano, Michael Story on bass, and Tim Sellars on drums. Each instrument has its solo moments and, combined, the accompaniment is sophisticated and always on the money. It’s the lot of the musicians to be in the background but their expertise is fully appreciated. Special laurels to Richard, Michael, and Tim.
Congratulations to all involved in what is a rich theatrical production. I absolutely loved it. And an accolade for Ali Harper who dropped from the sky to shine on this stage. You would be mad not to go and sparkle in her light.
– Review by Grant Hindin Miller for Theatreview
A four-week, one-woman show on the Court’s main stage is daring programming, but director Ross Gumbley and actor Ali Harper have taken a justified leap of faith in their ability to carry off this challenge.
The elegantly-designed, empty stage was never inhabited by Ali Harper, but, rather by the diverse characters she portrayed. Sean Hawkins’ varied, but unobtrusive lighting significantly assisted the performer’s character differentiation; the silhouetted projection of the superb instrumental trio, led by Richard Marrett, during the Billie Holiday episode, was particularly effective.
But it was the actor, alone on the stage, who engaged us for the show’s uninterrupted 90 minutes. The play tells the stories of five women (Nobodies), each of whose lives is touched by a famous diva. Ali Harper was at her best portraying the nobodies: a lavatory attendant, theatre usher, librarian, journalist and nanny. Each came vividly to life, communicating Australian writer Joanna Murray-Smith’s expression of women’s perspectives in a variety of situations.
The depictions of the divas were slightly less successful; these are real and exceptional people, as opposed to the fictional nobodies. Harper’s singing was accomplished, and her ability to convey the vocal characteristics, stage mannerisms and personalities of four of these was generally convincing. But that almost indefinable sense of vulnerability in Judy Garland’s artistry was somehow missing, as was the emotionally generous warmth of Patsy Cline and that certain otherworldliness of Edith Piaf. If the improvisatory quality of Billie Holiday’s genius was also missing, Harper gave us a genuine and moving glimpse into the tragic reality of her life – “Tell me, what do happy people sing about?”
The final Maria Callas episode was problematic. The writer had already placed superhuman demands on the performer, but this one was impossible. Unlike the other stars, here, apart from brief mentions of her presence on Onassis’ yacht, we saw nothing of Callas for ourselves. She remained a mysterious figure in the background to Harper’s consummate and hilarious Irish Nanny. However, Murray-Smith seemed less interested in Callas than in drawing a parallel between Tosca-Scarpia and Orla (the nanny)-Onassis. Any attempt to represent Callas’ singing is surely a serious misjudgment. Perhaps here we needed a recording or video (one exists) of Callas herself as background to Orla’s own personal encounter.
But this impossible ask does not diminish Ali Harper’s achievement in an otherwise truly astonishing acting and singing tour-de-force.
– Review by Tony Ryan for The Press
Listen to Grant Hindin Miller discuss the show on Radio NZ
Early Bird ticket prices are available for Mon-Thu and matinee performances in the first two weeks of the season.
Bernard St, Addington, Christchurch . Off the Hagley Park end of Lincoln Road in Addington.
Limited free on-site parking is available during performances. There is also ample street parking nearby for evening performances. Please allow plenty of time if parking is a priority.
Box Office: Phone 963 0870
• Monday-Thursday: 9am-8.15pm
• Friday: 9am-10.30pm
• Saturday: 10am-10.30pm
• Sunday: CLOSED
• Door sales available unless sold out. Check website for availability.
Snack Bar Opening Hours:
• Monday & Thursday: 5.30pm – 9:30pm
• Tuesday & Wednesday: 6.30pm – 10:30pm
• Friday & Saturday: 6.30pm – 10:30pm
Bar Opening Hours:
• Monday & Thursday: 5.30pm – 9:30pm
• Tuesday & Wednesday: 6.30pm – 10:30pm
• Friday & Saturday: 6.30pm – 12:45am
• Latecomers may not be admitted to performances.
• Cellphones, pagers, cameras and recording devices must not be used inside the theatre during performances.
• Beverages and snacks purchased from the bar or snack bar can be taken into performances so long as consumption does not interfere with the enjoyment of other patrons.
• If you have Gift Vouchers or Complimentary Vouchers to redeem, please call the box office on 963-0870.
Hearing Loop available, wheelchair access available throughout theatre and disabled parking by main entrance.
By any standards, Melbourne-based playwright Joanna Murray-Smith is a prolific writer, with more than 20 plays to her name. It is her regret that she is “one of only three [Australian] playwrights to make a living and whose work is done overseas.”
Her plays have been staged internationally, performed by acting heavyweights like Annette Bening (The Female of the Species), Laura Linney (The Gift) and Dame Diana Rigg (Honour). But as she says, there are good years and bad years for a playwright.
Her most popular play, Honour, was produced by The Court in 2009. Honour was written in 1995 when Murray-Smith was studying at Columbia University in New York. The play’s first public appearance was in a reading with Meryl Streep and it has since been performed in more than 30 languages.
Murray-Smith’s lengthy career has not been without controversy. Her hilarious play Female of the Species inspired by a hostage incident involving feminist and fellow Australian Germaine Greer, divided critical reaction. Despite not having read the script, Greer described the play as ‘threadbare’ and Murray-Smith as an ‘insane reactionary’.
In an article in The Guardian Murray-Smith said she wrote the play as a celebration of feminism’s triumph. “My intention in writing The Female of the Species was to devise a lively, funny play about feminism, among other things, and more specifically, about the legacy of those second-wave feminists whose courage, stamina and occasionally infuriating intellect have changed society for ever.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – the debate and mixed reviews, The Female of the Species has been performed numerous times throughout English speaking countries, including a production at The Court in 2010.
In her creation of characters, Murray-Smith has been accused of being too privileged and too middle class. Speaking to a reporter from Australian theatre website Stage Whispers, Murray-Smith responds:
“But that’s who I am. I did have a privileged up-bringing. It’s what I know; what I understand. I do have writers and other ‘arty types’ as characters. But why should there be any less interest or empathy for the drama those people experience in their lives? The trappings of social status don’t mean that pain, or happiness, or moral dilemmas are excluded from your life. It’s just that they might be explored differently.
“My audience is essentially me – women of a certain age, a certain upbringing, financially comfortable … and a certain intelligence. My truth is mine, and no truth is absolute. But it is as valid as anyone else’s. I write for the Main Stage. … I’m not averse to alternative experimental work. Theatre needs to continue to grow. But new isn’t always better, and I’m far more committed to pursuing excellence than I am to doing something avant-garde just to see if I can. I don’t apologise for that.”
As a female playwright she not only writes for a female audience but for female actors too.
The one-woman show Bombshells was written by Murray-Smith for Australian actress Caroline O’Connor. The play features six funny and emotional monologues about six different females at different stages of their lives. One could argue that there were few great monodramas written for female actors that don’t centre on men and relationships with men. Bombshells broke this mould.
“Many of us are trying to lead multiple lives: child, mother, wife, lover, star, giving small doses of oxygen to each and imploding under the weight of so many competing roles. The women I have written in Bombshells struggle – sometimes hilariously, sometimes tragically – to bridge the chasm between the wilderness of their inner worlds and the demands of their outer worlds. And humour, in the end, is our saviour,” said Murray-Smith.
Bombshells, first produced at The Court in 2007, was also the perfect fit for New Zealand actor Ali Harper, a cabaret diva in her own right. Her performance at the prestigious United Solo Festival – the largest solo festival in the world – earned her the ‘Best Actress Award’ from the festival organisers. It also puts her in an ideal position to take on Songs for Nobodies.
In a series of monologues Murray-Smith wrote specifically for versatile Australian singer Bernadette Robinson, Songs for Nobodies tells five stories of ‘nobodies’ whose brushes with fame had a profound effect on their lives.
Court Theatre Artistic Director Ross Gumbley has been pursuing the performing rights for Songs for Nobodies for the last five years.
“I knew it would be perfect for Ali Harper’s talent and range – and Murray-Smith agreed – in fact she insisted that if we were to stage Songs for Nobodies, it could be only with Ali,” said Gumbley, “and that is how we exclusively won the rights to stage Songs for Nobodies in New Zealand.”
Gumbley points out that Songs for Nobodies is no easy piece. It requires a performer capable of enormous versatility and vitality to capture the distinctly different sounds of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas in such a way that will completely transport the audience.
“We want audiences to leave the theatre feeling like they have experienced a series of iconic moments: a Garland concert in Carnegie Hall; Cline in a honky-tonk hall in America’s deep south; Holiday in some smokey New York blues bar; Piaf at the Paris Olympia; Callas at one of the world’s great opera houses,” said Gumbley.
This formula works well for Murray-Smith. Five years after the success of Songs for Nobodies, she teamed up again with Bernadette Robinson to present a new work, Pennsylvania Avenue, to showcase a different collection of iconic divas.
By Wendy Riley
Court Theatre Communications Manager