Café Society Swing
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Reviewed – 6th June 2018
“Each of the female performers were spectacular”
Over the last couple of years, British jazz has been having a welcome renaissance. Fuelled by a young group of experimental musicians fluidly assimilating hip hop, afrobeat and electronic dance music into their sound, the jazz coming out of Britain today feels a world away from the form whose origins can be traced back to black musicians in New Orleans a century ago.
Café Society Swing tells the true story of New York’s first integrated club, where black and white audiences alike could appreciate some of the finest jazz musicians of their, if not all, time. This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still rife and prominent artists like Duke Ellington had to come through the kitchens to get into all white venues.
A narrator, in slightly different guises (played by Peter Gerald), guides us through the story of the club, run by son of immigrants, Barney Josephson, which was successful in gaining recognition for many musicians, most notably Billie Holiday. Café Society acted as the venue for Holiday’s first performance of lynching protest song, Strange Fruit. However, Josephson’s brother’s federal investigation into his supposed communist ties affected business at the club, meaning that it was forced to close in the early 1950s.
An eight piece band, lead by pianist, musical director and the show’s creator, Alex Webb, plays live on stage throughout the show. Down lighting and plenty of dry ice evoke the atmosphere of a smoky nightclub, which fits in well with the regal yet intimate glamour of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Each of the female performers were spectacular, striking a balance between imitation of the iconic vocal stylings of Billie Holiday (Vimala Rowe), Lena Horne (Judi Jackson) and Sarah Vaughan (China Moses), whilst giving their own interpretation of the music. As accomplished jazz singers in their own rights, each vocalist blew me away with their soulful quality – not forgetting Ciyo Brown whose mellow and smooth voice was only one of his talents, also playing the guitar in the band.
Having (perhaps wrongly) expected a fully developed piece of musical theatre, I initially felt slightly disappointed with the words-and-music format of the show, finding the narration of the rise and fall of the club and its proprietor repetitive. However, if you take the mindset of being a guest in the cabaret environment of the club, being spoken to by the M.C., the piece becomes much more enjoyable.
After the fun and frivolity of a night at the club, the performance ends, as it should and as Josephson always insisted, with Vimala Rowe as the ineffable Billie Holiday under a single spotlight singing Strange Fruit. The music and lyrics evoking a time in the not too distant past too haunting for anything else to follow. Whilst the jazz of today may be taking new and exciting forms, it’s a genre that will unequivocally be associated with the struggle for freedom and whose power and poignancy should never be forgotten.
Reviewed by Amber Woodward
Photography by Craig Brough
Café Society Swing
Theatre Royal Stratford East until 16th June
Previously reviewed at this venue