The Octagon Theatre, during another successful season, hosts one of many touring performances and this Eureka Theatre production is both intriguing and innovative. As a tour “The Billie Holiday Story” runs throughout the UK until the end of November. With a week in Bolton (running until Saturday the 9th September), it seems as though the bus was a little bit late yesterday, resulting in a batch of technical problems and some uneasy direction. Musically, at times the band seemed a little bit scripted and with a frugal line up, it really was down to the double bass and drums to hold the spirit of the earlier tracks together.
Whilst Act One served as a shake down, the second half saw the performance hit its stride. The vocal parts were exemplary with the lead role of Billie Holiday taken very much to heart by the actress Yaa. Therese Olson and Katrina Beckford provided fine support with Beckford in particular illuminating the role of Holiday’s professional rival Ella Fitzgerald. Male members of the cast create a strong backbone to the play – Everal Walsh effectively portraying the more brutal characters in Billie’s life and Devon Harrison providing the spine tingling highlight with a rather special rendition of “Ole Man River”.
“The Billie Holiday Story” with some poignant scene setting, is as much about Black history as it is about the career of a pioneering singer. “Strange Fruit” is another harrowing landmark song. Wonderful melodies wrapped up around a story of racial persecution and murderous violence. Holiday's life itself is one mixed with social injustice, abuse, drugs, exploitation, violence and ultimately an untimely death. An early week performance meant that the auditorium was just over half full and that took a little of the sense of occasion away - But with an unmissable catalogue of sultry and at times upbeat songs, the sheer importance of this tale and its wholehearted embrace by the lead cast members, marks this as an important play.
It’s far from uplifting, but as a late week / weekend event, there are plenty of songs along the way and it serves as a respectful biopic of a legend who died in sad circumstances with little to her name other than the embers of immortality, which are ultimately realised and ignited through celebrations like this.
The Billie Holiday Story runs until Saturday the 9th September at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.