REVIEW: Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, Charing Cross Theatre ✭✭

Last Updated on 21st October 2014

Daniel Boys, David Burt Charing Cross Theatre
Jacques Brell Is Alive And Well at the Charing Cross Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander

Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris
Charing Cross Theatre
21 October 2014
2 Stars

I guess it must have been about fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, when I was exposed to the possibilities for enchantment, astonishing vigour and stylish verve that were on offer when a great performer tackles the music of a Jacques Brel. My initiation came at a Chita Rivera concert where she sang – spectacularly – Brel’s wondrous song, Carousel. In an evening peppered with familiar jewels from the crowns of Herman, Sondheim, Bernstein and Kander & Ebb, this was a stand-out, a knock-out, a triumph.

Now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre is a revival of Jacques Brel is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, directed by the indefatigable Andrew Keates for Steven M. Levy and Sean Sweeney (presumably for Charing Cross Theatre itself). This revue, for want of a better word, of Brel’s legacy was first assembled in 1968 but was reworked, very successfully, in 2006 off-Broadway by Gordon Greenberg, who recently directed Guys and Dolls for Chichester.

This is not exactly the same work as that revived in 2006 off-Broadway; the order of the songs is oddly different and there are some deletions. But as a vehicle to introduce Brel’s music, this is a fairly unbeatable selection of tunes and themes; a wonderful canvas on which to paint resonant, powerful theatrical images.

As the programme notes point out:

“Brel had a natural talent for words, perfectly balancing wit and emotion, following Hugo in his search for the perfect mélange of grotesque and sublime. Love, desperation, sex, death, absurdity, beauty; every facet of the human condition is present in his works…he was profoundly anti-war, though few would call him a true pacifist…in a recovering yet wounded Europe, Brel established himself as the singer who could left the veil on society, people and the tribulations of life.”

All of this is true. Brel’s music is unique: achingly beautiful tunes about terrible situations; harsh melodies for surprising subjects; a thread of absurdity juxtaposed against normal situations or human experience; a haunting melancholia which can transform into a thrilling or desperate moment of self-reflection or world understanding. A simple tune can twist and turn into a more complex one, shattering in its intensity; equally, a vibrant, pulsing song can dissipate into fragments of loneliness, memory and reflection.

The best aspect of this production is the musicianship on display from the gifted Dean Austin and the four members of his band who, with piano, accordion, guitar, bass and percussion, create the gorgeous soundscape for Brel’s work. Austin sings as well, and each time he does a sense of truth and a stylish understanding of the fabric of the music accentuates whatever is occurring, makes it better, more delicious.

The band, together with Chris De Wilde’s splendid Parisian cabaret set, establish a very “French” atmosphere which assists in comprehending and extracting joy from Brel’s music. Some of the seats of the auditorium have been removed and replaced with small table cabaret style seating. This is very successful, and, indeed, it would have been preferable if perhaps the entire front section of the stalls was removed to make way for more of the small tables – that kind of atmosphere, as Keates so clearly understands, benefits everyone, performer, composer and audience, in the case of Brel’s repertoire.

There were moments when the combination of lighting (Mike Robertson) and the design and band simply transported you to a dark evening in some dimly lit Parisian street, where possibility and tragedy were a footstep away, where the arrogance of the French was pungent in the air and where the soft glow of the stars offered eternal contemplation.

Unfortunately, all too often, those moments of breathless clarity were shattered by a sound design (that managed to be either too soft or too loud, but never adequate, to ensure vocals and lyrics were heard and understood) and singers who seemed to actively prefer to bellow or screech rather than sing. While the band may have understood (for the most part at least) what they were performing, both the cast and the sound designer seemed to be doing something else.

For the most part, there was a severe disconnection between the lyrics and the singer, the staging and the choreography. These are valuable, wonderful songs which just need to be sung splendidly – some softly, some with building and then explosive energy, some with a smirk, some with a tear, some with joy, remembered or extant. But they all require simplicity and style – in spades.

Sam Spencer Lane’s choreography did not suit the musical occasion, especially when the performers seemed so obviously unable to execute it with precision and identically. The best moments occurred when there was a stillness in the performer which permitted complete focus on music and lyrics – and the performance.

Of course, the cost of that sort of presentation is the exposure of the deficiencies, especially vocal ones, of the performer in question. But it is in that moment of raw, unfiltered clarity that Brel’s music achieves its heights.

Here, the four performers were not up to the demands of the music. Bellowing is not performing with style. There was far too much completely out of tune singing, possibly with a view to “acting” or “passion” but with the result that the point of the music was entirely lost. Occasionally, I wondered if there was some attempt being made to copy Brel’s personal penchant for impassioned fervour (if not histrionics) in performance – but Brel was Brel, and this show is not about Brel but his music.

Some songs look quite beautiful as they are staged but the singing does not match the effect of the staging. Other songs, particularly the more comic ones, are over-fussy in presentation and thereby lose comic momentum. Other songs mistake anger for despair or happiness for melancholy. Some of the staging seems utterly at odds with the mood and tone of both the song and the singer.

Several themes are explored – the most successful concern old age, war and its victims and love and betrayal. You certainly come away from the theatre wanting to hear more of Jacques Brel’s music.

Daniel Boys is the most impressive of the cast, especially when it comes to pitch and performance style. Gina Beck shows glimpses of real skill and manages to make some passages of some songs quite ethereal in tone and expression.

David Burt and Eve Polycarpou occasionally look fabulous, seem precisely right for the musical moment in terms of costume, stance, attitude, temperament – but then their vocal delivery robs them of any impact. Songs like  Amsterdam, Ne Me Quitte Pas and Carousel require vocal virtuosity well beyond the powers of Burt and Polycarpou. It is a shame, really, because both performers do appear to be giving their all to make it work.

And, mayhap, that is the central problem. A great deal of thought and effort seems to have gone in to “how do we do this for 2014” rather than focusing on just delivering the best possible version of the Brel catalogue. Distractions such as a Nigel Farage mask, a waiting room at a sexual health clinic or footage of unidentified people doing unidentified things being played at the back of the stage are completely unnecessary when the material is as strong and passionate as Brel’s music.

It’s a gift that Charing Cross Theatre has backed this production – Jacques Brel’s music has not exactly been alive and well in London in recent years. Dean Austin’s musicianship, and that of his band, provides a tantalising indication of the beauty and power of Brel’s music. But although this cast cannot dislodge my memory of that long ago performance from Chita Rivera, they certainly inspire you to listen to Brel’s music.

Until 21st November.

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