SYDNEY FESTIVAL: SEND FOR NELLIE
SEND FOR NELLIE, Sydney Festival, presented by Send For Productions and The Art House Wyong, at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, 19-14 January 2024. Photography by Brett Boardman
Elenoa Rokobaro is one of the brightest talents to emerge in Sydney musical theatre in recent years. In late 2019 she accomplished the impossible and stole scenes from Trevor Ashley in his riotously funny The Lyin’ Queen. Just months before, she had thrilled Hayes Theatre audiences in the demanding title role of the Kushner/Tesoro musical Caroline, or Change. And then the pandemic.
Four years on and Rokobaro is the central character in a new cabaret celebrating Nellie Small. Born in Sydney in 1900 of Caribbean ancestry, Nellie became a star of 1930s night clubs, not only as a dynamic interpreter of the jazz and blues of the day but also – and memorably now because there are photographs and no recordings – as a unique figure in Australia’s entertainment history. Often clad in white tie and tails on stage, Small wore dapper, tailored suits and Windsor-knotted ties in everyday life.
At the time it was a scandalous and potentially dangerous thing to do, yet as far as is known, it was everyday racism that most affected her: a scene has Nellie on tour and barred from entering the Brisbane GPO to pick up her mail because she’s black. Plus ça change.
That she was a special talent was recalled by the show’s creator Alana Valentine who wrote, “Bobby Limb, whom I interviewed back in 1991, told me that when a variety show was lacking sufficient oomph to really swing, the catch cry would be ‘Send For Nellie!’”
What’s telling is the date: in 1991 there was no interest in Nellie’s story (Valentine kept the polite rejection letter from MTC), even though Bran Nue Dae had crossed the Nullarbor in 1990 to become a phenomenal hit. At the same time, however, Jack Davis’s No Sugar brought the earnest and well-meaning to Belvoir, and Send For Nellie sits somewhere between the two.
At just an hour, the show still feels padded. A section of deliberately terrible “I say, I say, I say…” jokes fall flat because they’re either too terrible or not terrible enough and not even a willing opening night audience could muster the requisite groans. Meanwhile, the story-telling – such as it is – is split between Rokobaro and the versatile Eleanor Stankiewicz. It works when there’s a real character for Stankiewicz to inhabit – as Nellie’s idiosyncratic “manager” Edith Meggit, for instance – but there is too little known about either to make much of them, especially Nellie. And that’s a problem.
The dry narrative (she performed in Oxford Street clubs – we are told, not shown), and perhaps necessary but lumpen emphasis on racism drains any drama in favour of lugubrious correctness. Nevertheless, there is music!
Rokobaro is blessed with fabulous drummer (Jodie Michael), excellent sax/clarinetist (Camilla Bellstedt), and terrific musical director and pianist (Zara Stanton), as well as Stankiewicz (vocals and occasional joke nose). From gloriously delivered evergreens such as “Stormy Weather”, to the fun of “Darktown Strutters Ball” and the charm of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, Rokobaro and Co are at their considerable best when singing.
Direction, by Liesel Badorrek, is oddly haphazard (given how successful she was with Opera Australia’s Carmen on Cockatoo Island). Perhaps it’s the clunky set: a conventional stage fronted by nitery tables that surround another small raised dais. Beyond that: bleachers and the bulk of the audience. The performers weave around the tables while Rokobaro climbs the roundel and gives the bleachers a fair go; then back again. Clunky.
Significantly, there’s no easily visible credit for set design, nor sound or lighting. On opening night the latter two were dreadful and made life difficult for the performers. Send For Nellie could still be a work in progress, given it lay in a bottom drawer for so long, and it would be fascinating to see further research and development. Meanwhile, Rokobaro and the band are stellar and should go on tour – avoiding Brisbane GPO.