As the curtain falls, Jacques Brel's own voice gravels out, jaunty but husked with the grit of experience.
By then, we have heard the sweet, true soprano of Clare Joanna Thompson delivering a dozen or so of his best-known chansons. The contrast is striking – and, if you are a Brel enthusiast, not a particularly pleasing one. There is a chasm of difference between the dark charm that Brel brings to his vividly observed vignettes of love, life and loss and the youthful bounce (verging on the cute) that colours this Heels Over Head Dance Theatre production. Au Suivant (Next) is not a funny song about soldiers joining up. But if you did not know that, or could not understand French – all lyrics are sung in the original language – then the jokey "reluctant recruits in long johns" routine by Thomson and dancer/choreographer Agathe Girard would, and did, make an audience smile.
The twinkly fingered musicianship of Lizy Stirrat on accordion conjured up nostalgic hints of a smoky boulevardier enclave, a mood not really matched by either the cafe set, the occasional back projections or the attempts to make the songs into dramatic episodes. These came complete with costume changes and everyone, including pianist Jennifer Redmond, blithely playing the characters. Why, when there is no shortage of talent or commitment on-stage does this well-intentioned entertainment fall short of the mark? Because it is so inappropriately girly, and Brel's songs – even the light-hearted ones – need a whiff of street-sweat, cigarettes and cognac if they are to ring true. That snatch of his own voice at the end says it all.
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