Eric Blau and Mort Schuman’s revue of the songs of Jacques Brel may have its roots in 1960s New York, but Alyson Cummins’ set leaves one in no doubt that we are channeling pure Gallic nostalgia in Alan Stanford’s renewal. A couple of cafe tables and bentwood chairs, complete with bottles of wine and Absinth, are placed in a crumbling theatre, a gaping hole in the roof above the sagging red velvet curtain.
We open with the bouncy ‘Brussels’ — “put on your spats and your high-button shoes”. It kindles images of cabaret, war, and defiant human spirit; of Europe, then, in the first half of the last century. These are motifs we return to repeatedly, with the scorned lovers of ‘Madeleine’, the Flanders dead of ‘Marieke’, the bitter mocking of ‘The Middle Class’.
Under the musical direction of Cathal Synnott, the four-piece ensemble is largely faithful to the sound of the original off-Broadway recording. Which is no bad thing — it’s a great set of songs. The renditions, meanwhile, by Risteard Cooper, Karen McCartney, Stephanie McKeon and Rory Nolan are, if anything, more raffish, living down to the seedy setting.
Stanford ensures a flow between the numbers, which are performed solo, in pairs, or ensemble. Some witty flourishes include Cooper singing ‘You’re Not Alone’ to a disinterested spouse, creating a Sondheim-esque irony. Nolan, meanwhile, with his great ability to inhabit his characters — sometimes many in a single song, as in ‘Jackie’ — is a constant delight. Karen McCartney too deserves plaudits. She came late to the show, after Camille O’Sullivan pulled out, but sings with poise, clarity and character.
Movement, though, is of a perfunctory nature. The music is always the focus, but we are left thinking of unexplored dimensions that might have shaken up, dusted down, and freshened the piece. Yet, the first-night audience gave it a rapturous reception. A spontaneous ovation was followed by a clap-along reprise of ‘Brussels’. It was infectious, you had to give them that.
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