+3 Review: Bonita & Billie Holiday (Assembly Roxy: 4-28 Aug: 21.50: 1hr 10mins)

“An alluring performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I wanted so much to be blown away by this performance – a tribute to one of my favourite singers, by an actor coming to Edinburgh with a very good reputation and bags of experience in the States. Unfortunately, this opening night was somewhat nervy, and while it was difficult to tell how much of that was the actor and how much was the character, either way it left me with a sense of unease that stayed with me throughout the performance.

Bonita Brisker clearly has bucketloads of talent, even though in this performance it took her a while to find her feet. She seemed to struggle with range a little bit in the opening couple of numbers, but by Good Morning Heartache she really hit her stride, with the high notes floating with all the ease of Billie in her heyday and an alluring performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

Bonita also beautifully captured the mood and personality of Lady Day in the spoken sections in between each number, and the script enabled her to show different sides of the singer from her career to her relationship with her family, her drug habit and time in prison. We also see her irreverent disregard for the FBI and a very touching portrayal of her relationship with drinking and her views on racial inequality, which was rife during the 1950s. Indeed, signature song Strange Fruit, which I didn’t realise had such personal and political meaning, is a standout moment of the performance, accompanied by horrifying projections of public hangings and mutilations. It is heartfelt and very powerful.

Structurally I found this show a bit peculiar, with a short opening section in Billie’s dressing room, before the bulk of the show is delivered cabaret style as Billie on stage, and then another section in the dressing room with a bizarre twist that almost subverts everything that went before. Suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, I don’t think it has quite worked out whether it is a cabaret or a theatre piece so I think there is still some work to be done to give it a real sense of completeness.

This does have the potential to be a really special show, but the performance I saw unfortunately didn’t quite live up to that potential. Look out for it over the next couple of weeks, I believe it could be a real grower.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 4 August)

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