24 January 2024

Nellie's encore: new cabaret unveils untold legacy of Australia's vaudeville icon

| Dione David
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Actress playing vaudeville star Nellie Smart

Shoalhaven playwright and director Alana Valentine did in-depth research on Aussie vaudeville legend Nellie Small for her latest production, including delving into the National Library of Australia’s Trove and conducting interviews with Nellie’s contemporaries over two decades. Photo: Supplied.

There could never be another stage production that celebrates West Indian-Australian singer and enigmatic heroine of Australian vaudeville, Nellie Small, quite like Send For Nellie.

The new show by Shoalhaven playwright and director Alana Valentine is the result of decades of in-depth research and firsthand accounts from Nellie’s contemporaries.

“My research began 20 years ago, and back then many of them were still alive,” she says.

“I got to speak to Jimy Somerville, a jazz pianist who toured the outback with Nellie, and Bobby Lim, a big-time entertainer of the time. In fact it was Bobby who told me about the catchphrase.

“Whenever a show was flagging in a nightclub, they’d say ‘Send for Nellie!’ She was so charismatic; she was like an instant cure for the lacklustre.”

Nellie Small was born in 1900. The Trove at National Library of Australia contains accounts of her early career, when she landed stage gigs playing what she called “mamies” (black characters). It wasn’t until 1931 in Sydney when she donned a sleek top hat and tails at a little Oxford Street venue, that her career took off and the legend of Australian vaudeville and cabaret was born.

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Alana first heard about Nellie from her grandmother, who saw her perform at Sydney’s 50-50 Club and Ziegfeld Club in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Alana says she was equal parts intrigued and baffled at why someone who followed such a groundbreaking and non-conformist path was not more well known.

“This was a woman of West Indian heritage who cross-dressed as a man on and off the stage as early as the 30s. That just makes me go ‘Wow, she must’ve had a strong sense of her own purpose,'” she says.

“As you can imagine, she faced a lot of racism in her life. Sometimes when she was on tour she couldn’t pick her mail up at the GPO because black people weren’t allowed. Once, she was touring in New Zealand and was introduced to a fellow Australian, and she talks about how he spat on her.”

Actress playing vaudeville star Nellie Smart

Powerhouse performer Elenoa Rokobaro brings to life the enigmatic Nellie Small. Photo: Supplied.

In story, song and Nellie’s own words, Send For Nellie lifts the lid on “the most impressive career in Australian theatre you’ve likely never heard of”.

Powerhouse performer Elenoa Rokobaro is backed in the title role by a swinging three-piece band.

Between the soulful melodies and Nellie’s own riveting, hilarious and gut-wrenching memories, audiences witness the joys, challenges, rumbles with gangsters and flirtations with ladies in the audience come to vivid life in a thrilling new cabaret.

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Audiences can expect hits such as On the Sunny Side of the Street, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, St Louis Blues and At Last, punctuated by comedic songs such as Groucho Marx’s Lydia the Tattooed Lady and an original version of Ted Mulry Gang’s Darktown Strutters Ball, with lyrics switched up for a local flavour.

Alana’s hope is that people leave with an appreciation and respect for an unsung hero of Australian performing arts.

“I can’t promise the complete biography … Our job is to entertain and intrigue,” she says.

“It’s been amazing because most people in the audience have never heard of Nellie. We give them these snippets of her life, and the best thing I’ve heard from people as they leave is that they want to learn more about her.

“Nellie’s time has arrived in 2024.”

Having debuted at Sydney Festival, Send For Nellie heads to IPAC’s Bruce Gordon Theatre from 14 to 17 February. Tickets cost $55 for adults or $45 for pensioners, students, under 30s and groups of eight or more – book here.

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