Cafe Society Swing, Theatre Royal Stratford East

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by an anonymous guest critic

An evening of spectacular performances depict the true story of New York’s first jazz club, Cafe Society, run by immigrants and allowed black and white audiences to integrate. The club’s audiences watched the most talented performers of their time, including Billie Holiday, who gave her first performance of harrowingly beautiful lynching song ‘Strange Fruit’ there.

It was controversial then, but hard to imagine whilst sitting in the wonderfully diverse venue of Theatre Royal Stratford East that this is still a recent part of our history. The story of Barney Josephson, a shoe salesman from Trenton, New Jersey who has fallen on hard times and decides to try his hand at club management, is told to us through narrator (Peter Gerald) who takes us on the journey whilst accompanied by an eight piece band and that play live on stage throughout in the smoky nightclub haze.

All the actors gave stellar musical performances, in particular from the women Lena Horne (Judi Jackson), Sarah Vaughan (China Moses) and sensational Billie Holiday (Vimala Rowe). Whilst imitating the greats they also add their own flair to the vocals, reminding us how truly versatile special the jazz style is.

It really is an evening of entertainment celebrating not only this form of music but how far we have come as the human race. Though at times the form can seem quite repetitive, it is supported by a fantastic musical score and the final rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ makes it an evening I would recommend to everyone.

Cafe Society Swing runs through 16 June.

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