One of the fears around jazz music is that it will just go on and on. And on and on. And on. One of Café Society Swing’s few saving graces is that it manages to avoid this. Despite its numerous and baffling faults it still manages to feel concise – thankfully.
In theory, Café Society Swing should be a very interesting story; indeed, that’s precisely why I was looking forward to seeing it. It focuses on a real jazz nightclub in 40s downtown New York that played host to iconic talent such as Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson, before becoming a victim of the ‘Red Scare’ and being closed down for becoming a commie hotspot. Yet this potential to relay a fascinating story is stifled and suffocated by a bizarre and flat format.
A story requires a narrative. It requires a journey. It requires taking the audience on this journey. In place of this journey, what Café Society Swing presents us with is a Wikipedia entry, presenting events in dense detail rather than bringing them to life. Was this a university seminar? Was I meant to be taking notes? Gareth Snook does his best as the journalist and barkeeper, but he doesn’t have much to play with. I take no pleasure in mauling a piece of theatre. I’m not a performer myself, but I understand the work and effort that doubtlessly went into making Café Society Swing. The performers make a noble effort, and when the turgid script is interrupted with song, the piece awakens and frees itself from the shackles that restrain it.
In Vimala Rowe and Cherise Adams-Burnett, director Simon Green has found singers that fully do justice to the era and style. With no choreography to speak of, they rely on their rich and smoky vocals and are particularly delightful during numbers Stormy Weather, Wild Women and the more sombre Lord Randall respectively. Ciyo Brown gives a noble turn on vocals and guitar also, as do the Café Society All Stars Band.
So, what to make of Café Society Swing then? Blues in the Night, recently on at the Hackney Empire with the electric Sharon D. Clarke and Clive Rowe, this aint. In my humble opinion, it should reject all pretence of narrative (that which it hasn’t already) and focus on its strength – a clearly loving and capable vocal tribute to the post-war NY jazz scene. That’s what an audience would like to see, and it could then be judged on what it is, rather than what it isn’t.
Café Society Swing is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre until 21 June. For more information and tickets, see the Leicester Square Theatre website.