Theatre Review: AT LAST – THE ETTA JAMES STORY – Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Vika Bull in AT LAST - THE ETTA JAMES STORY

In a spirited musical tribute, Vika Bull celebrates the life and legacy of the rhythm and blues singer Etta James in AT LAST – THE ETTA JAMES STORY

Residing outside the typical jazz image, Etta James’ gritty-voiced renditions are credited with helping bridge the gap between blues music and rock and roll. Her raw energy and feisty attitude were reflected in the soulful collection of classics she left behind, carrying a distinctly deep voice that harboured lovesick songs.

AT LAST – THE ETTA JAMES STORY focuses on her earlier work, balancing the life of the gusty singer with her timeless tracks. In an honest portrayal of the artist, Bull opts against emulating James’ blonde bob beginnings and theatrical image, choosing to echo her earthy, powerful vocals throughout the concert. It is a sensitive portrayal that revisits James’ turbulent career and troubled life off stage. Younger audiences may be familiar with the commercial successes of At Last and I Just Want to Make Love to You, tied to the memorable Guinness and Coke adverts. However, James’ personal life was far from sweet and included problems with poor management, physical abuse and a heroin addiction that saw her husband Artis Mills serve a 10-year prison sentence for drug possession.

Escaping through music, James’ sporadic career comprises 30 studio album credits and an eclectic range of songs that encompassed gospel, country and a Billie Holiday cover album titled Mystery Lady. Bull spends the evening revisiting the successes that catapulted James’ career, within the familiar genre she ultimately fell back into. Together with the Essential R&B Band, Bull belts the staples that fans want to hear. Tell Mama, I’d Rather Go Blind and Don’t Cry Baby are collated with the ultimate love song At Last, to offer audiences a relaxed atmosphere brimming with beautiful music.

The show conceived in Melbourne by the Australian singer Vika Bull presents dazzling renditions of classic tracks that have been heavily covered by icons such as Celine Dion and Amy Winehouse. A seasoned performer with penetrating vocals, Bull is recognised for singing back up for Paul Kelly and performing as one half of the duo, Vira and Linda together with her younger sister. While Bull’s life may be the polar opposite to James’, the show doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia to carry out its tribute. Multi talented band members sing duos, perform solos and add to the storybook elements of James’ life. Stressing the influence and impact that James’ music has had on them and the generations that followed, the mature range that Bull brings aids audiences understanding of her experiences. Her decisive debut album, At Last was released in 1960’s at the age of 22. In spite of her struggles, her career garnered six Grammy Awards, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Protective over her songs and personal image, James was famously frustrated with Beyoncé for performing her hit At Last at Obama’s 2009 inauguration, along with her portrayal in the 2008 melodramatic biopic, Cadillac Records. At the Bridgewater Hall, the commanding icon is presented with an aesthetically simple production that pulls Bulls aching vocals over At Last. Alongside the seven-piece instrumental, Bull’s honest introduction to the life of Etta James offers a moving tribute that recognises the legend as a stand-alone star, with no imitation necessary.

(4 / 5)

AT LAST – THE ETTA JAMES STORY tours the UK from 21 September to 23 October 2018.

Frances Scott is a graduate of the MA Contemporary Literature and Film course at Manchester Metropolitan University. As a content writer, she has worked with The Reviews Hub, Northern Soul and frequently posts theatre reviews on her website www.101Frances.com. You can also follow her on Instagram (101Frances) and Twitter (@FrancesScott1).