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Stuart King

Review: CAFE SOCIETY SWING at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Cafe Society Swing It would be very easy to like this piece. It would also be very easy to dislike it - and oddly enough, for exactly the same reasons.

We’re in Greenwich Village, New York at the tail end of 1938. Prohibition ended 5 years ago and various clubs (all offering alcohol and entertainment) have sprung up to cater to the seemingly limitless demand of white, wealthy, east coast Americans.

The enlightened owner of one particular jazz venue (the Cafe Society of the title), has gone one step further and refuses to accept colour as a limiting factor for either those performing on-stage or enjoying the shows in the audience.

Idealist... perhaps. Groundbreaker... certainly. Naïve antagonist... maybe. Talent promoter... most definitely.

Peter Gerald plays a cynical hack, a bartender and the club’s owner during the course of the evening. For the sake of those considering attending a performance, it might be simpler to describe him as the narrator, given that his role is simply to provide a steady stream of characterised historical tidbits which link the songs (standards and others penned by the MD Alex Webb) prior to them being performed by the largely black, female cast in the guises of Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Essentially, this is “Cotton Club” territory without the high-octane dance numbers.

“All Of Me”, “Stormy Weather”, “Where Or When”, and Holliday’s dramatic closing number “Strange Fruit”, all take centre stage through the redoubtable efforts of performers Ciyo Brown, Vimala Rowe, Judi Jackson and China Moses, but is this a concert, a history lesson or a piece of musical theatre? Sadly those responsible have tried to deliver all three and have failed to successfully deliver any of the components fully. There are definitely elements which demonstrate accomplishment and style. There are occasional corny moments of humour and there is an attempt to inform and provide historical context throughout. But the overall result is a somewhat shambolic amalgamation of the three which isn’t entirely satisfying on any level.

From a technical perspective, Alex Webb’s on-stage musical direction on opening night, seemed a little off. Both timing and general connection to the 8 piece band, lacked dynamism and cohesion. Each of the singers had hit and miss moments and the audience seemed confused by the role they were due to play. Silent observer? Appreciative head-swaying, phone-checking concertgoer? Bemused bystander? All were present and added to the general sense of beguilement in the stalls.

Parts of the production deserved commendation, but this reviewer wanted to unconditionally love the whole enterprise for both its execution and the laudable intent underpinning it. In truth however, it failed to live-up to that high expectation.