This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
To avoid confusion, Jacques Brel died in 1978 aged 49, near to Paris and no suggestion is being made of his resurrection. This show is a revue of the Belgian-born singer/ songwriter’s work which first appeared in New York in 1968 and was revived there with great success in 2006. It was last seen in London in 1997. Chris de Wilde’s set resembles a shabby Parisian night club, with a five-piece band on stage and tables at the front of the stalls. The ambience that this creates makes an instant suggestion that the show could be best enjoyed with a full glass of wine to hand, giving encouragement to wallow in the melancholic music. Using Eric Svejcar’s arrangements, Dean Austin’s band, often featuring prominent accordion, gives the evening a distinctive French flavour. Brel’s lyrics reflect lives well-lived and hard-lived, enriched by love and loss, tenderness and pain, passion and despair. In Brussels, he tells of childhood frolics and the company dances like marionettes, dressed in Chaplin outfits. But Brel’s childhood was to be interrupted by war and his music career was to develop in its aftermath. In Statue, a dead soldier comes to life to rebuke those defacing his memorial, a mother laments for her lost boys in Sons Of and, in Next, a young man rails at the indignity of conscription. The spectre of World War II hovers above many of the songs in this revue, yet Brel’s chief preoccupation seems to be with the emotions of ageing. In the bleak Old Folks, he writes of old people in the third person, but in most of his lyrics, he reminisces in a very personal way, showing a remarkable understanding of an age group that he, himself, barely reached. Fittingly, the company is made up of two performers in middle age and two younger, all have their own solo highlights and combine well with each other in duets and company routines. These are four accomplished actors who sing well, but, more importantly, they milk the songs for their dramatic effect, aided by choreography from Sam Spencer-Lane. David Burt, looking dishevelled and world weary, recollects the raucous days of his youth, when he was called Jackie; speaking some lines, finding all the gravel in his voice and varying the tempo, he gives a unique rendition of the song, as different as it could be from the famous Scott Walker version. Later, he offers comedy, rising repeatedly from his own coffin to sing Funeral Tango. Eve Polycarpou brings maternal warmth and, in all her songs, she rises to the crescendos in the style of Piaf. Particularly striking is her delivery of Brel’s best known song, If You Go Away, which she sings in French (Ne Me Quitte Pas), sitting on the edge of the stage strumming an acoustic guitar, whilst back projection shows passengers leaving Charing Cross station. Gina Beck creates an image of tarnished innocence, singing I Loved with resentment towards a man who cheated on her, but finding the resilience to end the song with “I forgot his name” and, later, with My Death, she faces up with resolution to her own mortality. After the passion shown in Statue, and the rage of Next, Daniel Boys gives a memorable, tender interpretation of the beautiful love ballad, Song for Old Lovers, showing clear joy whilst celebrating a relationship that has come through turbulence and survived. There are lighter songs, but, in general, they work less well than the poignant ones and the show ends with an anthem of hope as the company joins together for the slightly corny If We Only Have Love. Jacques Brel is rarely heard these days and Andrew Keates’ confident, well performed production gives us a welcome reminder of a great talent.
Performance date: 18 October 2014