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Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Directed by Edward Hall for the JST Footprints Festival. Music Direction by Michael Haslam on guitar and Paul Moylan on Bass, Hall on piano. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 20th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.


Take seven of the greatest vocal divas – not always primarily known as vocalists, but world-famous, instantly recognizable. And you could probably take another seven. None of these died old, all were abused, all triumphed in a blaze of their own and sometimes others’ making. You can cite the usual beyond male constructs of drugs and sex and rock ‘n roll specifically designed to work for men and against women. And throw it back at them.

One thing this narration proves is the intolerable pressures these women were subjected to, nearly always by men, mostly exploitative and always they fought back.

What we have here in a one-hour-fifty show from Issy van Randwyck – directed by Edward Hall for JST’s Footprints Festival on piano, music direction by Michael Haslam on guitar and Paul Moylan on bass. Jazz concert with narration.

Van Randwyck sashays through the lives and work of Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Patsy Cline, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield. You could start another list with Bessie Smith, but these sopranos mostly take the top ten.

From Fascinating Aida we’re transported to this seven-stars Dazzling Divas. Many will know van Randwyck as a triple Olivier Award Nominee – last seen in The Boyfriend at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in the film of  Blithe Spirit with Judi Dench.

Van Randwyck’s voice transcends uncanny mimicry quite apart from her own identity: the show demonstrates how. There have been others – Jane Horrocks, Philippa Stanton, as well as so many tribute acts. Van Randwyck though excels at a terrific vocal plasticity and narrational flair touching each voice with a bass-note of biography, a bed it rises from.

Billie Holiday’s journey to murder in a police cell (nothing less) remind us how far we’ve not come since 1959, when she died aged 44. Drugs and alcohol played their part, and early damage: ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’ is both clarion independence and confessional. But the apex of Holiday’s rebellion is ‘Strange Fruit’, with its lacerating witness, agon and accusation. There’s a way this singer catches the vocal inflections of van Randwyck’s smoky delivery – those twists, tics and sudden vocal drops of narration in ‘You Go To My Head’ and ‘All of Me’ is a far cry too from another tragic, self-determined and very smart diva, with a fluffy persona.

Marilyn Monroe’s more remembered as actress than singer, and another candidate for having been in reality murdered. Yet her vocal credentials are almost too distinctive. Breathily playful, uncannily canny about her image, Monroe also knew how to place her voice as blonde as the way she made one heel slightly shorter than the other to obvious effect. The actual lyrics of ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ are disturbing enough, but one should also recall the soaring soprano line van Randwyck embodies to electrifying effect – far removed from the flossy voice often seen as Monroe’s trademark whose intonation van Randwyck catches too. Monroe set up her own production company after being paid $18,000 and not the $100,000 Jane Russell received. Thus ‘Running Wild’ tells another story. We end on that bed of nembutol and other killer sodiums pointing at conspiracy.

Patsy Cline’s less known, dying at thirty in a plane crash, but her ground-breaking mix of genres and vocal strengths make her the elusive diva of this showcase. Van Randwyck covers her more briefly: I’d like to have learned more but 110 minutes with an interval after this is already generous.

With Janis Joplin, van Randwyck’s not going to burn her voice (for instance that searing ‘Cry Baby’ climax) but comes pretty close with the raspy ‘Lord Won’t you buy me’ and getting audience participation – and relates her life with its soaring arc, Joplin called reductively ‘a skyrocket chick’ because she’d explode. Starting as a brilliant abstract expressionist painter, Joplin had to exit Texas as if hounded by demons. ‘What Good Will Drinking Do?’ puts to music some of Joplin’s famous quips like ‘I’ve just made love to three thousand people and I’m goin’ home alone.’ It’s a near-universal feeling in singers; as the song is a universal hymn to damage. It’s still unnverving to feel the waves of Joplin’s unparalleled powers exploding at 27, the youngest of all.

Mama Cass Elliot’s more oppressed living took her to 32, and because of her size was subjected for very different unpleasant pressures by colleagues jealous of her vocal powers. But she too was ground-breaking in mixed groups. ‘California’ Dreamin’ owns an aspirational west-coast Utopianism Cass’s voice embodied. ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ is a very different intimate song full of undertones Her voice that defined its era in a different way to Joplin’s showed a range a vulnerability and subtle musicianship that makes it tragic she died, not because of any drugs or alcohol or lifestyle, but simply a heart attack brought about by stress.

Van Randwyck’s own life intersects here. With a voice that catches, she relates how she was transfixed by Karen Carpenter’s voice on a cassette when young. Carpenter was herself wowed by seeing Cass and knowing of Joplin; the paradox of her life was turning her back emotionally on all her predecessors’ crusades. Anti-feminist she believed in marriage as a woman’s place but ultimately died in her family’s bathroom to anorexia via a heart attack also at 32: at war with herself, her family and her talent. ‘Close to You’ and other lyrics might set teeth on edge occasionally but they’re heart-rendingly delivered in Carpenter’s crystalline voice: small but close-miked and of stratospheric purity with a deep reach into the bass we sometimes forget.

Dusty Springfield’s the British coda. There’s more worth hearing: how her life broke with the others sexually and in the way you can reinvent yourself after early hists like ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’. Van Randwyck’s certainly relates how Springfield was rediscovered in 1987 by The Pet Shop Boys. In ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ and subsequently she revived her career till illness in 1995 and earned Elton John’s accolade cited here: ‘I’m biased, but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been.’ Born earlier than the last three singers and topping the charts by 1964, she survived till 1999 just short of 60 after the next generation helped to revive her career.

Van Randwyck’s briefer with Springfield’s escape from men as she was with Cline and to an extent Cass. Nevertheless each diva she presents she inhabits, ranging from lustrous to smoky to confiding, turning Jermyn’s Street’s intimate space into a bar with jazz set ideally suited to her vocal bloom and minute inflections. With Carpenter Van Randwyck’s paying homage. The catch in the voice here is her own. Quietly heart-rending, it’s the highlight in this paean to tragic fulfilment.