“Oh his jelly roll is so nice and hot
Never fails to hit the spot”
According to the publicity, the New York Post called Blues in the Night “a dark-toned honey of a show” which I guess sounds better, and less potentially contentious, in an American accent. The show at hand was conceived by Sheldon Epps in 1980 and is Blues in the Night, a revue which weaves together music by the likes of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Ida Cox and many more with the sheerest of narrative threads. It makes for an often thrilling evening but one which I found curiously uneven.
The set-up for the show sees three female characters – The Lady, The Woman, The Girl – bemoan the troubles in their love lives which all centre on the same guy – The Man. Moving around the Chicago hotel in which they all reside, the gift of these tremendous songs is used to tease open their relationships and the many stages of love they experience with The Man, whilst he also gets to chime in about his experiences, mainly with songs like Duke Ellington and Mack David’s ‘I’m Just A Lucky So-and-So’.
Moving to a catalogue that perhaps comes more naturally than the one Tori Amos created for him, Clive Rowe is a marvellous central presence, full of a cheeky charisma that makes the glint in his eye shine even brighter and an easy swagger that commands. But the limelight is well and truly taken by an awesome performance from Sharon D Clarke as The Lady, making the act of singing seem like a natural extension of her self, whether swinging through the bawdy wit of Razaf and Wilson’s ‘Kitchen Man’ or breaking hearts with the fiercely felt intensity of Jimmy Davis’ ‘Lover Man’.
Against such heavyweights, Paulette Ivory’s Woman and Gemma Sutton’s Girl can’t help but suffer by comparison. Ivory is dwarfed by Clarke’s presence and Sutton doesn’t always feel quite at ease in the genre. But Susan McKenna’s production keeps things flowing smoothly, Mark Dickman’s five-man (and, incidentally, all white) band are superb and there’s occasional support from dancers Ryan Reid and KM Drew Boateng. It may leave you wanting a solo Sharon D Clarke show but in the meantime, get down to the Hackney Empire to catch these blues