Countless artists, from Diana Ross to Beyoncé, have been inspired by the story of the legendary dancer and singer Josephine Baker, who was born in St Louis and became the toast of Paris in the 1920s. The latest person to fall under her spell is Cush Jumbo, who has written and performs this one-woman, 90-minute tribute in a theatre converted into an intimate cabaret lounge. It's a dazzling performance, but I could have done with more "Josephine" and rather less "I".
Jumbo's aim is to counterpoint Baker's career with her own aspirations as a young, fame-hungry, British-born actor. She tells the extraordinary story of Baker's transition from American chorus girl to a star of French revue at the Folies Bergère, of her multiple husbands and lovers, of her ownership of a Dordogne chateau surrounded by her 12 adopted children. Jumbo also touches on Baker's work for the French resistance and her involvement with the US civil-rights movement, though not on the fact that Martin Luther King Jr's widow wanted her to take over the leadership. Precisely because Baker's life was so rich, I yearned to hear more about her political activism and less about Jumbo's own dilemma in apparently being forced to choose between a lucrative US TV offer and her environmentalist boyfriend.
Of Jumbo's own skill as a performer, however, there is no doubt. She is full of vivacious energy, conveys Baker's transition from teenage phenomenon to showbiz legend, and tactfully avoids replicating the famous dance in which Baker appeared swathed solely in bananas.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, for whom she strikingly played Mark Antony in an all-woman Julius Caesar, Jumbo gives an all-stops-out performance and shocks us by occasional revelations of the prejudice to which she herself has been exposed from bloggers and fellow performers. But the show is at its exhilarating best when Jumbo's own personality is subsumed into that of the magnetic dancer and radical spirit worshipped by Picasso and Hemingway.
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