Review: Blues in the Night at Kiln Theatre, London

Wednesday 14th August 2019 at the Kiln Theatre.


Read the marketing for Blues in the Night and you’ll find the following promise: ‘…a scorching compilation of 26 hot and torchy blues numbers that frame the lives and loves of four residents of a downtown hotel.’ It certainly delivers all that is promised, and does so with the melancholic gravitas afforded to those who croon (and belt!) the tunes of wisdom, hindsight and heartbreak like they’ve owned them since the very first notes were played.

There’s no neat narrative as such, there’s simply a thread of performance and Susie McKenna directs in a way which serves the characters through a sequence of songs which are nicely intertwined, gently shifting our focus from one singer to another as they introduce us episodically to their struggles and pains. The work of McKenna, musical director Mark Dickman and choreographer Frank Thompson shines within a production which figuratively throws the concept of a script into the fire and sings stories through the expressive smoke it creates.

Blues in the Night is also a production as rich in theme visually as it is in auditory stakes. While the cast sing the blues with plosive force, Robert Jones and Neil Austin thrust us into the heart of the scene with their set and lighting designs giving visuals of the women in their respective spaces under the moody shifting clouds of light. Costume designer Lotte Collett looks beyond merely establishing the period well and focuses on the sensuality of the female singers holding their audience in the palm of their hand. From sequins and feathers to close tailoring and and flashes of flesh, the women are dressed to make a bold statement hinging on their femininity.

Sharon D Clarke exceeds expectations as The Lady. More than anyone joining her on stage, Clarke makes us believe the lyrics of her character. The dusky tone of her voice lends itself beautifully to the wisdom and playfulness of the songs she sings and once more Clarke proves herself a performer who can transfix with an understated performance full of gravity and feeling. The Lady has seen it all, done it all and by God does she know it all – Clarke makes various songs of hers stand alone show highlights.

Debbie Kurup impresses as the powerhouse Woman who knows and is living her share of misery made up of one part men, two parts the temporary solution she pipes into her veins. In Kurup we find echoes of Clarke’s depth of tone mixed with all horns blazing belts to set the shot glasses shimmying. Completing the trio of women is Gemma Sutton who brings a spiralling would-be prissy housewife vibe to The Girl. Like Kurup, her vocal prowess sits most comfortably in all out belting – and boy can she belt. There’s a naivety to this character which has slipped from the personas of the other two and it’s oddly engrossing to see the more established women responding to The Girl as a tragic prodigy of their environment.

Clive Rowe completes the primary character list as The Man and plays a playful jibe game with Clarke very charmingly, projecting a love-hate relationship between two established pros in the field which brings a sense of warm longevity to the proceedings. Rowe, much like Clarke, has a knowing delivery and a depth of tone which lends itself very nicely to this music – while the show does favour the trio of female singers in terms of airtime, each character has plenty of space to hammer home their songs. 

Other notable performances include Aston New and Joseph Poulton who share a steamy dance spurred on by the sultry haze of the sights and sounds of their environment. And what would a show like this be without its on stage band? Mark Dickman leads on keys and is joined by Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (tenor sax/clarinet/flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass) and Shaney Forbes (drums) going by the band name Oscar and The Strollers and bringing a fabulously vibrant and varied set of songs to life with all the feeling invited by the material. 

Twenty six songs of blues, jazz and soul fill the air across the performance time of Blues in the Night, celebrating melancholy, sassy and defiant beauties from some of the very best songwriters. We may know the songs already – with the likes of Taking a Chance on Love, Lover Man, Willow Weep for Me, Am I Blue? and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out included it’s likely in fact, but various songs take on a new shade of meaning as they are performed here. The finale of I Got a Right to Sing the Blues ends the show on a definitive note delivered by fabulous and versatile vocalists leaving our ears ringing with their perfected harmonies and their heartfelt demand to be heard. It’s a golden few hours of melodies crafted to move and it’s well worth seeing.

Blues in the Night plays the Kiln Theatre until September 7th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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