Apphia Campbell impresses Tim Hughes as the voice of jazz singer Nina Simone

Black is the Colour of My Voice

Oxford Playhouse

Nina Simone is one of the greatest ever jazz singers, but she was also a leading light in the Civil rights struggle – her soulful, occasionally edgy, and always perfectly paced songs of love and inner strength, but also anger at racism, brutality and a yearning for justice.

There can be few better singers to take on the coveted mantle of Nina than soul singer Apphia Campbell. Possessed of a voice that could tickle the stars, her note perfect renditions of such classics as My Baby Just Cares for Me, See-Line Woman, I Put a Spell On You, and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood send a tingle down the spine.

But Campbell is not just a covers a singer.

The first half of this double bill, which takes its name from the song Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair, is a one woman show in which Campbell tells us the life story of the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in north Carolina, recalling episodes from her life through the neat device of her confiding in a picture of her dead father – propped up on an armchair in the corner of the room.

We hear a little known tale of a woman who delights her mother with her first taps on the piano (Campbell part-miming the action while sat on a piano stool facing the audience). We learn of her dedication to the church, her passion for gospel, and the giddiness of first love.

Then there’s the domestic abuse, and her burgeoning identification with the Civil Rights movement. These are brought to life with powerful newsreel recordings including Dr Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech – a poignant moment given the show’s timing, the day after President Trump’s inauguration – something Campbell raises herself, with heavy sigh, in the second half.

The narrative is punctuated with snatches of Simone’s songs, sung largely unaccompanied.

It’s an emotional roller-coaster which had a full house stunned and subdued as we shuffled out for the interview.

The second part of the show is a cabaret set, with Campbell telling us her own story alongside more of Simone’s standards – Sinnerman, I Loves You, Porgy, Ain’t Got No, I Got Life... at times getting us to join in – with predictably cringe-worthy results.

It’s not just that we were mostly clapping out of time or that most of us can’t click our fingers very loudly, it’s that we were still reeling from the emotionally-wrought first half, and firmly in listening, not participating mode. Uncomfortable change of gear notwithstanding, this was a triumphant celebration of a giant of song.