Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Wyndham’s Theatre until 9th September


Review By Haydn James

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and the incomparable Audra McDonald are finally in London and on the West End. Following a year postponement due to McDonald falling pregnant, this critically acclaimed and Tony award-winning show is now jazzing up the West End, in more ways than one.

Lady Day

About the show

Written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill tells the story of Billie Holiday’s life through a selection of her most famous songs including, God bless the Child, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Strange Fruit, and Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness. This powerful, emotional and thoroughly entertaining production not only has an amazing score and mesmerising performance but touches on Holiday’s rather turbulent and somewhat tragic life and struggle with addiction. During its run at the Circle in the Square theatre in New York, the show won two Tony awards including ‘Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play’ for Audra McDonald. The role of Holiday has been played by some of the most formidable female performers including, Lonette McKee, Eartha Kitt, Loretta Divine and now the sublime Audra McDonald.


The basis of the show is that the audience are watching Holiday perform in a small club in Philadelphia, much to her disgust, in 1959 only a few months before her death. It is somewhat sad to witness Holiday slowly decline throughout, but certainly makes for a captivating performance. It is crystal clear that McDonald is a true star, a formidable actor and a sensational singer. The way in which McDonald manipulates her voice and adopts Holiday’s original sound and purity will leave you spellbound.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 9 September 2017. CREDIT Marc Brenner

The story of Holiday’s life, whilst laugh out loud funny at times due to McDonald’s performance, is also heartbreaking and hard to listen to. The issues surrounding Holiday’s childhood, failed and dangerous personal relationships, her time in prison, struggle with addiction and the extreme racism she endured throughout her life all feature in the show. The chosen songs illustrate and accompany the story perfectly and force you to really listen to the lyrics and give you a much deeper insight into the tragic events in her life, which have clearly shaped her music and untimely and tragic demise.


McDonald has won a total of six Tony awards and is the only person to receive awards in all four acting categories and her performance in this only cements those accolades. The sheer brilliance of McDonald is the effortless way in which she performs with such power and glittering presence. McDonald delivers a flawless and faultless portrayal of Holiday, with her impeccable comedic timing, total physical engagement, connection to the audience, deep connection to the character and beautiful execution. From head to toe, McDonald has clearly studied every single nuance of Holiday and is fearless in her portrayal. The transformation is jaw dropping and has to be seen to be believed.

The seating arrangement of the cabaret tables at the front of the auditorium and the seats on stage, enhance the jazz club atmosphere and amplify the feeling of being at an intimate Billie Holiday show. If you can, become part of the show and bag yourself a seat on stage and become part of the show itself and of course closer to the legendary Audra McDonald.

In Summary

If you are a true fan of Billie Holiday and her unique sound this is the closest you will ever get to hearing her live. Do not miss your opportunity to watch this spectacular and captivating show during its limited season here in London’s West End. This is truly a rare gem of a show and must be celebrated.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until September 9th.

Tickets start from just £16!