Review: Bernadette Robinson: Divas

Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 10 September

By Alex First

Ten iconic female voices from different eras, with diverse styles – from husky to angelic. They are the divas in the show title.

Songstress par excellence Bernadette Robinson mesmerises with her musical range and artistry.

She channels Kate Bush, Shirley Bassey, Karen Carpenter, Edith Piaf, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas, Amy Winehouse and Judy Garland.

Matt Cox’s lighting design ensures each is spotlighted when Robinson sings their songs.

Twenty-nine musical numbers in all, sung in English, French and Italian, with anecdotes about the artists – gifted storytellers in their own right – to boot. 

These reveal their attitudes, vulnerabilities and motivation.

On several occasions, Robinson breaks into narrative mid song, only to resume warbling once the yarn has been spun, without missing a note.

She has remarkable voice control and switches, seemingly effortlessly, from singing in one language to another, hitting high notes and low.

The sound design by Nick Reich is impeccable.

The show was created by acclaimed director Simon Phillips and Robinson.

Accompanying Robinson is an accomplished three-piece band.

Musical director Mark Jones is on piano and keyboards, Jonathan Skovron on guitar, bass and keyboards and Bryn Bowen on drums.

Jones and Martine Wengrow are responsible for the musical arrangements, which Wengrow has orchestrated.

Robinson is dressed in elegant black with silver heels. She moves around the stage where seven chairs and microphone stands are positioned.

Above her is a colourful panel displaying representations of each of the world-famous artistes whose songs she has culled from their luminous catalogue. The artwork is that of Peter Simpson.

Robinson, who stunned in multiple sell-out seasons of one-woman musical plays Songs for Nobodies and Pennsylvania Avenue is mighty impressive.

Clarity, purity of sound and emotional resonance are distinguishing features of her 90-minute unbroken performance in Divas, during which she doesn’t hold back.

Not surprisingly, there are umpteen standout moments. Among them, Shirley Bassey’s My Life, Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose and Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball and Flowers.

It is also impossible to go past Maria Callas’ operatic repertoire.

Other popular fancies include Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Bassey’s Diamonds are Forever and Karen Carpenter’s We’ve Only Just Begun.

Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were goes down a treat, as does Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Judy Garland’s Over The Rainbow.

Picking favourites is no mean feat, given Robinson’s prowess.

The audience was in raptures. I can understand why, for she is among this country’s finest voices.

Bernadette Robinson: Divas is playing at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 10th September, 2023.

About the Author

Alex First believes all people have a story to tell, if only a good playwright can prize it out of them. Alex has a natural curiosity about the world and believes a strong narrative, or narrative with music, can open the door to subjects about which he knows little.

Like his parents before him, theatre is his passion – a passion with emotional resonance, one that moves and excites him. He brings decades’ experience as an arts’ connoisseur to his role as a critic.

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