Tiny diva without the flummery

FIRST NIGHT Imelda Staunton and Her big Band Donmar Warehouse

David Benedict
Wednesday 02 September 1998 23:02

WHEN IMELDA STAUNTON played Miss Adelaide in the National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls she displayed sincerity and cynicism, wailing and wisecracks, heart and heat.

A thimble-sized sexpot, she also sang up a storm. It was only a matter of time before someone persuaded her to devise her own cabaret. Following the Callaways and then Barbara Cook in the Divas at the Donmar season was always going to be tough, but she has clocked the dangers.

First off, she opted for a ten-piece big band. More importantly, she refuses to succumb to the flagrant fakery beloved of divas the world over. When the soprano Karita Mattila sang at the Wigmore Hall, for each half she had different hair and different frocks, even different rocks on her fingers. Staunton comes on in a spangly dress that's backless, strapless and held on by a prayer, but cabaret conventions stop there.

Even the material is surprising. She kicks off with Leiber and Stoller's "Kansas City", moves through "Fever", and spends the whole evening running a mile from showtunes. The nearest you get is a sensational rendition of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale", but that's a solo for the band.

The brass, woodwind, keyboard and rhythm section arrangements by the trombonist Nick Lloyd are breathtaking. Hearing Lennon and McCartney's sweet but forgettable "I Won't Live in a World Without Love", filled with cross-rhythms and scurrying scales for twin saxes, makes you think you're listening to a masterpiece.

Then he takes a real masterpiece like Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo", slips in a delirious 6/8 middle section and makes you gasp.

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