Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris

Theatreworld Internet Magazine, April 2005

Produced and Directed By Linda Edwards
Musical Direction by Simon Sharp
Cast: Marie Daly, Carys Gray, Kiara Jay, Stewart O'Reilly, Joseph Wicks, Rupert Young

This production wisely steers clear of embellishing the complex song structures originally written by Jacques Brel, ( with English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman ) and instead concentrates on a direct and simple dramatic delivery of a wide selection of what I can only presume are Brel's "greatest hits".

Knowing nothing of Brel before I saw the production, the title suggested that this is a production seeking to illuminate Brel's relevance for a twenty-first century audience. The show works as a free form cabaret of musical numbers, and the opener "Marathon" seemed to assert the piece's intentions by having its cast perfom a lyric which provides a break-neck re-cap of twentieth century history - summing up the nineteen twenties, thirties and so on in a series amusing couplets. The song breaks at a point where twenty-first century history begins, and this would appear to be a raison d'etre enough for the musical itself. Yet the suggested mirroring of our society by Brel's songs isn't quite as clear as this confident beginning implies.

"Jacques Brel is Alive and Well" is strong on atmosphere of fin de siecle anxiety and the fall-out of hedonism which would seem to go hand in hand with this, and so in a way, this in itself would be of relevance to us. But the feeling of the show is cast firmly in the territory of "Moulin Rouge". While a musical like Cabaret animates an entire era by enveloping its characters and songs in a dramatic narrative, there is no such linking device in this piece.

This isn't to say that the production lacks entertainment value. Director Linda Edwards deals as well as the material allows her, to create chemistry between her six performers, when they are often alone on-stage, and performing lyrics which enact the introspective psychology of a kaleidoscopic range of characters, of whom Brel's songs provide us with brief, vivid snapshots.

Brel's melodies are arresting for the fact alone that they capture the wayward flux of so many dramatic scenarios. There is subtle, delicately cruel pathos in "Old Folks" - where two younger women's uncharitable observations on the older generation, are a paper thin mask for their own anxieties about ageing. But it's a subtlety which can just as easily shift into the fierce vitriol of "Next", where the figure of a soldier - possibly from beyond the grave - articulates a stark alternative to heroic images of warfare. Edwards directs the cast so that these emotional shifts are never intrusive, and so that both the isolation and desolate humanity of each episode, with the warmth and hope that accompany that, are both keenly felt by the audience.

The cast are an interestingly contrasting mix of personalities, and they communicate each song with technical skill and a naturalistic attention to detail, so that the lyrics in the small Landor auditorium have an almost conversational clarity.

While the passionately gallic commentary, delivered by the unseen figure of Brel, is fragmented and perhaps baffling for someone unacquainted wth his ideas, it does mirror the work of a writer whose songs hover ambiguously between heartfelt sentimentality and biting satire - such as in the emotive "Timid Frieda" and "The Desperate Ones". In his commentary Brel mentions a "brightness darkening", and this is the impact of the most successful moments in this show. Brel is expert at casting a spell with a beguiling melody, and wrong-footing an audience with a line which doesn't flow in a metrically predictable way. The acting and musical direction allow this quality to unfold with both effective restraint, and powerful emphasis when appropriate.

He is also adept at bald statements of emotion, such as in "Fanette" - a medition on lost love, and the savage invective of "Middle Class", as well as the bawdy wit of "Amsterdam". Personally, I prefer the darker moments - particularly the bleak and frenetic "Carousel", with its dizzying, escalating music and words, matched by a precision in performance and choreography.

The set is minimal, and alternates to suggest the contrasting backdrops of modern London and turn of the century Paris, though the juxtaposition was unnecessary, and wasn't borne out by the performance.

This is an affecting production - by turns witty and moving, and engaging for its detailed artistry and variety, without being compelling in the way a strong narrative would have been.

Reviews by Paul Williams for Theatreworld Internet Magazine