The Lowry, Salford Quays – until Saturday 3rd February (excl Thursday 1st February). Reviewed by Julie Noller
My Parents were teenagers during the 60’s, I was a mere future thought, what I know of Nina Simone comes through stories and listening to the radio. What I have learned tonight is far more powerful. I’d heard her called the Queen of Soul and tonight Nina Simone conquered mine.
Nina was originally performed at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool in 2016 before heading for a tour of Sweden and reaching London’s Young Vic in 2017. It’s Directed by Swedish Theatre Director Dritero Kasapi and stars Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE whose previous works include an Olivier nominated role as Rafiki in the production of The Lion King from 2000. It’s fresh, it’s vibrant, it’s simply superb. It carries an important lesson that is so simple, it’s complex. I expected music, I expected an account of the life of a diva from humble beginnings. What we got was explosive and quite possibly if Josette Bushell-Mingo was my teacher then I would be an A* student.
She captivated the audience as soon as she appeared on stage, striking her Nina Poses, talking about politics, Martin Luther King and JFK it was going exactly as I expected. The band began playing as Nina was introduced, she begins to sing Revolution. But wait shes stopping shes telling us ‘Nina I can’t do this’ I’m confused, I look to the audience they look confused, theres an electric buzz in the air, is she having a breakdown? Josette is quite possibly a heroine of mine now, she made me understand, feel like I lived the daily racial tensions and violence of not just 1960’s America but now in modern day Britain and how the times may have changed but the issues never really have. Questions are still questions asked again and again with no real answers. How must Nina have felt? Knowing she deserved to be free but still felt enslaved, her colour was as important as her church was. The backdrop of screen and curtain are used to show pictures mostly of freedom campaigners they come with powerful words, some quiet, some loud. Nina Simone was a truly talented artist who like many of the times wrote music with such thought provoking power it earned her a place with the Civil Rights Movement, yet she was a classically trained pianist.
The first 60 minutes are filled with Josettes parallels of 1960’s to modern day struggles felt across society. Women, Blacks, should all struggles be linked as one? No each is different and can not be talked about in the same context. I feel like I can not do enough justice trying to explain Nina for it is too great to even try. What I can explain is those 60 minutes of rants, chats, calls to arms. Well they lead to us totally understanding the meaning of each song.
Josette resumed the concert and I found I listened to each and every word as if Nina Simone herself was up on that stage performing to a small modest crowd in North West England. Songs I knew well and have often sung along too, changed in context as I heard the anxieties of struggles, a talented singer who wanted to be heard not only musically but politically.
I saw the audience sway, clap and cheer each and every song. I didn’t have enough toes to tap, hands to clap and voice to sing along. It’s not a necessity but a right of passage to join in with Josette as Nina. I can honestly say the heat of the 1960’s found it’s way to cold, damp, wintry Manchester leaving the audience shouting for an encore. An encore is what we got, a second standing ovation was our way of thanking Josette for a play so brilliant it’s left me asking more questions about how life was for Nina and her contempories. I don’t have enough words of praise except to urge fans of drama, fans of musicals, fans of history, fans of one woman shows, fans of fabulous entertainment – well go and see it, your minds will be blown by what you see and I think I may just have to download some Nina Simone to educate me some more, for she’s put a spell on me.