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theatre Joyous music wrought from pain

Jan Woolf has a whale of a time at the Kilburn Kiln’s production of Blue in the night

Blues in the Night
Kiln Theatre
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Conceived by Sheldon Epps, and staged by Epps and Gregory Hines in New York in 1980, this musical later found its way to London via Donmar Warehouse, Piccadilly Theatre, and now this revival at Kiln.  

The set, in which five musicians are embedded, shows us a downbeat Chicago hotel of the 1930s. Directed by Susie McKenna, this is not so much a story but a series of blues songs held together by The Lady’s (a magnificent Sharon D Clarke) spare narration, as three women sing about the same man.

These are laments of pain and yearning that have their origin as much in the near history of African-American suffering as they do in the romantic. But there’s plenty of joy and comedy.  

The Man, a ne’er-do-well, brilliantly sung by Clive Rowe — with a blues range sometimes flipping into falsetto — is all-knowing innuendo and fragile self-belief.

His comic timing is wonderful, reminiscent of the pantomime dames he’s played at the Hackney Empire.  

Debbie Kurup (The Woman, who sells her jewellery for drugs) and Gemma Sutton (The Girl) are the other women who take on the range of emotional experience — hope, enchantment, disappointment and despair.  

Sharon D Clarke, playing a former performer comforting herself with her scrapbook and memories, turns herself inside out singing Bessie Smith’s Wasted Life Blues, conveying the never-ending struggle of her life. It nearly brings the house down.

Other songs counterbalance the heartbreak, like Kitchen Man — a song with a dirty mind.

Korup’s viscerally expressed Rough and Ready Man show what a fine physical actor she is and Sutton’s Willow Weep for Me is just beautiful.  

When the characters sing together, the experience is as thrilling as any opera. 

There’s great support too, from hoofers Aston New and Joseph Poulton as the hip and graceful rude mechanicals, with pianist Mark Dickman presenting a virtuoso 100 minutes.     

Music wrought from pain, bringing such joy, can only be described as a gift.

Until September 7th — kilntheatre.com/whats-on/blues-in-the-night.

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