This moving portrait of Billie Holiday’s later years casts gloom over the singer’s jazz heyday

Photos Marc Brenner

Theatre review Lady Day at Emerson s Bar and Grill - credit marc brenner

You might be an avid fan; you might be relatively unfamiliar with the life and music of Billie Holiday. Either way, expect to emerge from this striking 90-minute production with a new level of appreciation of both her struggles and her songs.

Even before the show begins, we’ve been transported to Emerson’s Bar & Grill, the production’s eponymous setting in 1959 Philadelphia. Many of the seats for tonight’s production are on the stage itself, and the front rows have been removed to create a cabaret setting: guests are clustered around dimly-lit tables, and waiters are offering table service while a three-piece jazz band plays. 

Theatre review Lady Day at Emerson s Bar and Grill - credit marc brenner

Half musical, half musings, we experience Holiday at her best and her worst. Following her enormous success in the 1930s and 40s, drink, drugs and a spell in prison has dented her popularity. Tonight, she’s playing to a room of just seven. The play is set in March 1959, and Holiday is in the later stage of her life – she died four months later, at the age of 44. 

Six-time Tony Award-winning Broadway actress Audra McDonald is Billie. Her voice and intonation are outstanding, even when she’s deliberately faltering. Whether upbeat or melancholy, the songs resonate, particularly on the haunting Strange Fruit, her 1939 track about lynching. Cheerful numbers such as T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do jar with her increasingly drunken ramblings about abusive former partners and her early years as a prostitute. And while much she says is self-aware and amusing, her recollections of racist and violent incidents make for extremely uneasy listening.

Theatre review Lady Day at Emerson s Bar and Grill - credit marc brenner

This production was originally performed in 1986, but even in recent years films have explored the drug and emotional abuse that female musicians such as Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston suffered at the hands of their partners, with devastating consequences. That this still goes on today really leaves a lump in your throat as the light fades, leaving all but McDonald’s face in darkness as the curtain drops. A powerful performance.

Until 9 September
Tube Leicester Square
Hospitality VIP packages start at £184.50pp: guests get premium seats, a private hospitality area, house champagne, and savoury and sweet canapés pre-show and during the interval.