Brand new Joanna Murray-Smith play Pennsylvania Avenue provides another tour de force vehicle for utterly incredible talent Bernadette Robinson, yet ultimately fails to fully engage and affect.
Firstly, to address the inevitable, elephant in the room comparison, Pennsylvania Avenue does not reach the glorious heights of Songs for Nobodies. It is not just the law of diminishing returns; it is just that the material is not of the same quality and power. The exquisite vignettes of Songs for Nobodies each packed an emotional punch (who could ever forget Edith Piaf helping a woman escape the concentration camp), which is lacking here.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may be one of the world’s most famous addresses, if not the most famous, but its significance might be lost on Australian audiences. Robinson plays plucky southern gal Harper Clements, from Georgia. Pushed out by an upstart from the (George W) Bush administration, Harper is leaving the White House after four decades, having worked her way from timid third assistant to confident and capable entertainment secretary.
Carrying her last box of mementos, Harper acts as a Forrest Gump-like US history conduit, regaling us with her past glories and regrets as she worked under various President and First Ladies. Murray-Smith’s canny ear for detail provides all manner of minutiae, colouring Harper’s stories with well researched, and mostly fascinating, details from behind the scenes at the home of Western power. There are some welcome laugh lines initially, but the longest portion of the 100-minute running time is given over to sentimentality. While the rose-coloured reminiscences may carry some heft with recent or imminent retirees, the big emotional revelation of the final act resonates with only minimal impact.
Rather than allow frequent breaks for applause, many of the songs are presented as fragments, cut short as Harper’s mind takes her in another direction. Songs that reach their big finish are well chosen and carefully timed. A heartfelt rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is the emotional high point of the music, coming at a point when the story is at its most poignant. While most selections fit the narrative, a tenuous connection of Hilary Clinton’s situation to Tammy Wynette seems designed just to shoehorn in Robinson belting a bit of “Stand By Your Man.”
There is no doubt whatsoever that Robinson is an extraordinary performer, and this showcase of her astounding vocal mimicry will cement her status as one of our most gifted and treasured stars. The snippets of song come thick and fast, illustrating not only the breadth of Robinson’s abilities but the speed and utter confidence with which she can switch styles. An early moment sees her flip almost instantly from Ella Fitzgerald to Maria Callas with jaw-dropping speed and accuracy.
Renowned director Simon Phillips does not seem to be in top form with Pennsylvania Avenue. There is an element of dramaturgy missing from Harper’s journey, as some characters do not land in a clear or meaningful way. Harper’s box of memories is a first year drama school device at best, and Robinson is given little to do other than meander around a few chairs; incidents are not recreated with magic of similar monologue play Shirley Valentine (or current MTC stable mate I’ll Eat You Last). Most worrying, Phillips allows a couple of the impersonations, such as Barbra Streisand and Eartha Kitt, to be played for laughs, a cheap trick that threatens to undermine the entire project.
Shaun Gurton’s Blue Room set is simply and elegantly denoted by a curved blue curtain, which is occasionally back lit to give glimpses of the band. A set of slick monitors, encased in gilt frames, hang overhead, exhibiting not just portraits but an extensive collage of significant photographic memories that greatly enhance the storytelling. Video designer Chris More has done excellent work on these displays.
Musical director Ian McDonald keeps the accompaniment light and breezy, generating an impressive range of styles from the four musicians.
Reservations with the material aside, there simply is no other performer like Robinson, and Pennsylvania Avenue is a stunning showcase of her unique gift.
Pennsylvania Avenue plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 20 December 2014.
Photos: Jeff Busby