Lady of Jazz

Greg Mosse and John Gleadall
Doye Mosse Productions
Hope Mill, Manchester

Lady of Jazz Credit: Benjamin Graham
Lady of Jazz Credit: Benjamin Graham
Lady of Jazz Credit: Benjamin Graham

Lady of Jazz, by Greg Mosse and John Gleadall, is a monologue with music that ambitiously touches on issues such as identity, racial prejudice and real-life natural and financial disasters.

In America during the early part of the 20th century, jazz singer Honey Grey (sole performer Michaela Bennison) sits backstage and ponders her identity. Honey has a number of issues with her personality and frets about the choices she has made. Grey is her stage rather than real name. She is of mixed race and her alcoholic mother encourages her to assimilate—exploit her light skin and pass for white. Honey’s classically trained musician father would prefer to earn a living playing chamber music but Honey is drawn to jazz and feels guilty at pushing him in that direction.

The structure of Lady of Jazz is unusual. The first act is essentially a monologue with music; pianist Tony Pegler in the non-speaking role of Frankie Finch accompanies Bennison throughout. The songs in the first act are original compositions by Mosse and Gleadall and go far beyond being simple pastiches. As in musicals, the songs fill in background details and move the story along and the lyrics are strong and evocative—the opening number ominously predicting the lights of showbiz may be too bright for Honey. The authors are sensitive to contemporary opinions and ensure Honey refuses to sing any songs in which men abuse women.

The play is epic in scope—covering the racial problems experienced by black people in the southern states of America in the 1920s' prohibition, a flood and the Wall Street crash. However, the ambition of the authors in covering so many topics may have limited the extent to which they can be explored. The setbacks Honey experiences have little emotional impact and are resolved quickly and without drama. Indeed, the authors are so determined to offer value for money that, in the second act, the play changes from being a character study into a jukebox musical.

In the second act, the story moves outside of the dressing room to feature Honey in concert with Bennison, in character, performing jazz standards. Bennison clearly relishes the challenge of tackling the standards that push her vocal range far more than the original compositions. Yet the shift leaves questions from the first act unanswered and limits the dramatic impact of the play. Honey makes a point of saying she stays away from men but we never find out if there is a psychological reason, if it is her sexual inclination or simply a lack of trust. The play does not address the issues that pushed Honey’s mother into alcoholism and Honey commits an act of violence without any sign of guilt or emotional stress.

Throughout the ‘concert’ part of the play, Honey systematically removes the trappings of success—jewellery and the like—as if to indicate she has resolved her identity crisis by returning to her simple ‘country girl’ origins. It seems strange that a character who has defined herself by her passion for jazz music and the success she has achieved as a result would find peace by returning to something she showed no sign of enjoying.

Honey Grey is a star-making role for Michaela Bennison who rises to the challenge of portraying a range of characters from big-eyed anxious children to scowling parents. Bennison gives Honey a lively, vivacious personality; her love of singing is so obvious it makes sense she would communicate with us through song as much as words. Bennison’s intimate approach ensures Honey remains vulnerable and appealing rather than a demanding diva so we are on her side from start to finish.

The limited time to address the many issues raised by Lady of Jazz does not allow the play to achieve its ambitions in full but it is a compelling production with a show-stopping central performance.

Reviewer: David Cunningham