ABOUT BILL at Theatre at the Tabard
“a deeply heartfelt piece of musical theatre”
Sixty years is quite a time span to slot into a little over sixty minutes. It is quite an epic endeavour, especially in the intimate confines of an eighty-seat venue, but the decades are pinpointed with a flawless and nostalgic precision in Kim Ismay’s one woman musical “About Bill”. More than just a backdrop, the passing years are the context in which Ismay takes us on a journey (or rather, several journeys) through the lives, recollections and revelations of ten very different but connected women. The show is as much, if not more, about them as it is about the title character – whom we never see. Bill Fitzgerald, the renowned (fictitious) jazz trumpeter, who blazed with a rock ‘n’ roll star’s headline grabbing self-destruction, scandals and love-affairs. Adored the world over for his music, these women who shared his life pull focus on the many other shades of love that this charismatic maverick inspired.
As the shockwaves of the 1929 Wall Street Crash reach our shores, pregnant showgirl Stella has more important things on her mind as she wishes for a girl rather than a boy. Fast forward ten years and we discover her wish was not granted. It was a boy – Bill – later abandoned by his mother to be raised by pious Auntie Dot. Already, the skill with which Ismay switches characters is firmly revealed. Each endearingly individual woman is meticulously real, convincing and natural; the range of emotions matching the diverse personalities. As the accents and costumes change, so are our hearts tugged in varying directions. Never before have we witnessed such a perfect balance of humour and pathos, of laughter and tears, vaudeville and poignancy. Bernie Gaughan’s script, written specifically with Ismay in mind is a perfect vehicle, but it resonates far deeper than that. Ismay undoubtedly owns the material, along with the late Matthew Strachan’s music and lyrics into which she breathes the very souls of those characters.
After Auntie Dot, we behold the sixteen-year-old Joyce, smitten by the ‘bad boy’ Bill, seeking answers in the agony aunt pages of the local rag. Next up is Gloria, the gin-swigging landlady, past her prime and seduced into lowering the rent. By the 1960s we meet Auntie Dot again. Bill is world famous now, and Dot fears for him. She fears he will go the way of his mother, the victim of a lonely death. There is Sally, Bill’s lovechild born of a tryst with the teenage Joyce. We encounter the aristocratic first wife, forever in therapy, and young enough to quit while the going’s good. As we tear through the seventies and eighties, we meet Mexican grifter Lopita, music journalist Karen and fellow addict Helen, until the final, heart-rending reappearance of Sally. Keith Strachan’s staging lets us know exactly where we are in time and space, but it is Ismay’s spellbinding performance that anchors us there, along with Matthew Strachan’s songs (accompanied by Paul Crew at the piano) that reflect the varying periods, as well as allowing Ismay to delve into the many depths of feelings that are brilliantly conveyed in the book and lyrics.
“About Bill” is a deeply heartfelt piece of musical theatre. The satire is evident, but the humanity is a sheen that dominates and resonates. Ismay’s versatility is frankly astounding. She makes use of an array of wigs and (self-made) costumes, but frankly she doesn’t really need them. Her talent and sensitivity does it all. Speaking and singing she is a delight. The show is a perfect mix of monologue and music. You’ll be enthralled. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll want more.
ABOUT BILL at Theatre at the Tabard
Reviewed on 30th August 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Anthony Sajdler
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