Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 21 October 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Charing Cross Theatre ⋄ 18th – 31st October 2014

The songwriter’s songwriter.

Poppy Corbett

Jacques Brel was a songwriter’s songwriter and a huge influence on many musicians, including David Bowie, Marc Almond and Leonard Cohen.

The auditorium at the Charing Cross Theatre has been designed to transport us to a Parisian lounge club: round cabaret tables (some at the front at which audience are seated), smoky haze, instruments waiting in anticipation to be played and the kind of chair Sally Bowles might dance with sitting centre stage. It screams faded decadence, albeit tinged with nostalgia and hope.

This is not a typical musical revue in which the performers, wearing sparkly black, perch awkwardly on bar stools as they sing into standing mics. Instead, director Andrew Keates has tried really hard to engage and surprise the audience by directing each song uniquely. We are taken through a whole range of scenarios: from café waiters, to soldiers, to a whorehouse, to a funeral. Each scene depicts a microcosm of society and this helps to convey the breadth of themes that Brel’s songs cover: love, loss, war and the everyday peculiarities of life.

Mostly, this approach works, though there are times when the decisions made feel overly fussy. There are enough props to make an ASM sweat profusely and the performers seem to be endlessly taking off or putting on coats, opening handbags and rearranging tablecloths. In the striking Ne Me Quitte Pas for example, Eve Polycarpou sings beautifully, sat on the edge of the stage, but the guitar prop plonked on her knee is redundant. Whilst sometimes the stage business works and fits with the song’s story, often it’s just distracting: movement for movement’s sake. The songs themselves are so vivid and the performers are so competent at bringing them to life that we really don’t need much more in order to be captivated by them.

Though all the singers are interestingly different, they work together extremely well as an ensemble. Daniel Boys and Gina Beck have beautiful voices – at times, perhaps a little too beautiful to evoke the intensity that many of the songs convey. They excel during some of the more upbeat numbers with Beck giving a humorously quirky turn during Timid Frieda and Boys’ bringing his own unique touch to several varied characters. The voices of the two older performers suit the gravity of some of the songs, the strongest moments coming from David Burt. In Jackie he gives us Dustin Hoffman in Meet The Fockers: a drunk in a Hawaiian shirt, filling the stage with energy. The Funeral Tango has most of the audience laughing with its wonderfully timed visual humour, but it was his first act closer, a barn-storming rendition of Amsterdam that really blew me away. Burt transforms himself into a Nick Cave figure, magnetically owning the stage, while Polycarpou impresses throughout with her powerful voice and emotional complexity, offering us a variety of songs sung in English, French and German.

All four work incredibly hard and the production zips along at an enjoyable pace; if you’re looking to be carried off on a nostalgic night out in Paris, this is the show to see.

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Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris Show Info


Directed by Andrew Keates

Cast includes Gina Beck, Daniel Boys, David Burt, Eve Polycarpou

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