Review: Nina – A Story About Me And Nina Simone, Unity Theatre

UNITY Theatre have been wanting to present a show built around the life of Nina Simone for the best part of a decade, and they have finally got there in this extraordinary co-production with Riksteatern, the National Touring Theatre of Sweden. Josette Bushell-Mingo gives a searing performance in this work that she has devised with Director Dritёro Kasapi. With three musicians onstage she enters and introduces us to Nina Simone, but just as it seems we are about to get a tribute concert, it suddenly takes off in another direction completely. The performance style refuses to fit into a box, but is probably best described as a play with songs. Josette masterfully weaves together two seemingly inseparable narrative threads, one about Nina’s life and the other her own. The biographical detail is illustrated and punctuated by the insertion of several of Nina’s songs, emerging at key points to illuminate the spoken dialogue. There is anger and despair in the writing but, while the work is deeply unsettling at times, it never makes us feel manipulated. Toward the end we return to the concert setting and get a demonstration of Josette’s formidable vocal talent, with stylish accompaniment from her band. Bold, dramatic lighting from Matt Haskins combines with Dritёro Kasapi’s video projections to mould and change Rosa Maggiora’s deceptively simple designs, making the theatre space feel at once intimate and as huge as an arena stage. Nina Simone was in many ways a revolutionary, but Josette observes that it doesn’t feel as though we’ve had a revolution yet. Revolution is about turning things around, and sometimes you seem to end up back where you started, she says. In light of some of the deeply unsettling events going on around us in the world there are important messages to be reminded of, and this piece manages to make us reflect upon them while still offering us a great theatrical vehicle. Nina, a story about me and Nina Simone runs at the Unity Theatre to 29th October, before embarking on an extensive tour of Sweden until March 2017. Review by Nigel Smith