Between the Bars

Sonny Koll reviewThere’s something very special about going to a show in a venue that makes you feel like you’re part of the story. In Between the Bars, a new piece from Sunny Koll about five women in a New York jazz club, we have just that experience.

Performed in Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club, the low ceiling, black décor, dim lights and red furnishings make it easy to forget that you’ve just walked off the street in Melbourne and you have to be back in the office in just over 12 hours.

Koll hasn’t set herself an easy task as a performer. The show’s five characters are as diverse as they come, spanning five decades in their ages and five lifetimes of experience. Each of them has their own answer to the root question, ‘What is fulfilment?’ Backed by a four-piece band, Koll weaves the five women together through songs performed as herself, under the pretext of being the performer currently programmed.

This is a great script, with beautiful moments of light and shade. It avoids the gags too often seen in new monologue, instead offering a beautiful assemblage of those moments of honesty that you can’t help laughing at, because they are really just mirrors.

Of the five characters, the two to stand out were Sylvia, mother to the club’s owner who’s in to deliver bagels, and Bessie-Lee, a newly hired waiter at the club who knows she is destined to be a singer. I would have liked a little more distinction between the other three characters, but this is really pedantry, as Gloria, Mia and Isis were clear enough in their physicality and intent to stand apart from each other.

On Opening Night, having already performed the show twice (for rehearsal and preview), we could feel a bit of the exhaustion that Koll must have felt. Despite this, the performance was electrifying – reflecting the ‘cool flame’ that Bessie-Lee describes, ‘reaching out to lick the audience.’ (One particularly smooth rendition of a love song prompted one couple, at the back of the room, to take a break from watching the show in favour of a quick snog.)

And there were flares of glory throughout. Mia’s audition performance of O Mio Bambino Caro was an unexpected joy that brought the house down and left very few dry eyes. Interestingly, it was often these pieces, in which Koll performed as one of the characters, where we saw her guard drop and her voice really soar.

By the end of the show, I cared about the five women and I wanted to hear more from Sunny Koll. The audience apparently agreed, as she received a standing ovation and calls for an encore. It’s a beautifully thought-out performance, with an exquisite melancholy that left us all feeling calm and hopeful, and somehow ready for the week. It’s the sort of show that you want to go back and see again, because the afterglow is just so delicious.

Between the Bars
Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Bennetts Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 21 September 2014 – 7.00pm
Season: 21 – 25 September 2014
Information and bookings:

Image: Sonny Koll

Review: Jennifer Piper