Review by Sam Waite
What if a story was all about one man, but he was never once seen on stage? Women are so often seen through the lens of what they mean to the men at the centre of these stories and how they impact them… What if this man’s story was told entirely by the women who knew him? With About Bill, Bernie Gaughan and Matthew Strachan’s one-woman musical, the Theatre at The Tabard plays host to these questions, and to these stories.
Played by Kim Ismay, an array of women who knew, loved, or were let down by fictional musician Bill Fitzgerland tell stories (and sing songs, accompanied by a capable and quick-fingered Paul Crew on piano) about the times when they were closest to him, and the moments that changed these dynamics. The approach to storytelling is not dissimilar to Maury Yeston’s Nine, though more compact and with a significantly shorter list of songs. Kim Ismay, donning a series of wigs, costumes, and accents, is tasked with bringing to life the women who shaped and studied one man’s complicated life.
Ismay is excellent throughout, able to adjust her posture and demeanour just enough that a change in persona is recognisable without becoming caricaturist. Her palpable disappointment and unerring affection as Aunty Dot is as richly felt as her pained struggles at continuing a normal life as addict Karen, and she balances her comedic instincts and comedic prowess with skilful and delicate shifts. Of course, director Keith Strachan deserves his share of the credit, with his sureness of vision having helped to shape this performance – or perhaps I ought to refer to them as performances, plural, being so distinct and easy to separate from one another.
Admittedly, the writing itself is clumsy in places. Gaughan’s book doesn’t utilise every character to their full potential, and many of the twists and turns of Bill’s storied life and career are predictable if you’re aware enough of pop culture and past music industry controversies. Where characters feel more fully realised in the script, as with Aunty Dot and even Bill’s fleetingly seen mother, the material soars to great heights – unfortunately, the required consistency just isn’t there.
Likewise, some real high points come in the songs – the trouble is that there aren’t many of them, in an experimental storyline that may have served a song cycle better than a book musical. The two songs given to Stella, the wayward soon-to-be mother, are so captivating that they left me wanting more from her, and a finale song from his illegitimate daughter is particularly moving. All are sung well by Ismay, who is willing and able to bring character to her voice over outright beauty, but still shift where appropriate into gentle and warm tones that bring real humanity to the work.
One scene, mercifully the character’s only appearance, was misjudged in its inclusion. Ismay’s many roles are all well-performed, but the role of gold-digging maid Lopita was deeply uncomfortable to watch – a young Mexican woman exciting to find a rich white man to marry at her dead-end cleaning job. The scene drew some laughter from the audience, but I found it difficult to understand why this particular character needed to be included, or why such potentially controversial choices were made in her creation.
About Bill is an interesting conceit but isn’t able to fully convince us that Bill Fitzgerland is worth all the fuss and fascination. Kim Ismay’s chameleonic prowess makes great strides towards selling the largely enjoyable material, but the aforementioned scene and some by-the-numbers plot beats do threaten to work against her. Still, the musical has fun, well-presented songs and heaps of heart, which drew a warm reception from the bulk of the audience.
Photos by Anthony Sajdler