Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Charing Cross
The show opens with a woman sitting smoking with arched back, a silhouette against smoke-blurred backlighting. It’s a tableau that aches with noir-ish, Parisian sensuality, one that befits a night of homage to the Belgian singer/songwriter who spent most of his career in the French capital.
In the style of a live music joint, the front row of the audience is set out on round, candlelit tables covered in red silk tablecloths. The stage itself is an extension of this, with more tables set up among the band, which includes accordion, piano and double bass. It is in this smoky, moody world that our show takes place.
Rather than a play, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well is an evening of songs. There is no talking. Four singers – two young and two older – share the songs between them. The profound Alone is sung early on by the whole company, spread among the stalls or leaning from the circle balcony, each face starkly spotlighted. David Burt sings Amsterdam, injecting it with Brel-esque passionate rage. All songs are translated into English with the exception of Ne Me Quitte Pas, perhaps because no English could do it justice. Eve Polycarpou perches on the edge of the stage to sing it and manages to convey all its tortured beauty, despite her top notes being a little hoarse. A reprise of If We Only Have Love showcases some gorgeous harmonies, which finish the show with a bang.
Whereas the two younger actors have very polished, musical theatre voices, the two older voices are not as technically good yet possess far more soul and grit: are more Brel. David makes up for in feeling what he lacks in refined singing talent. When it comes to the choreography, Polycarpou and Burt are a little sloppy, while Gina Beck and Daniel Boys are always spot-on.
A through-line or at least some ongoing relationship between the characters would deepen the impact of this production, which was instead one long playlist. Each song stands well on its own, but a simple story to connect them would perhaps have made it still more engaging.
The power of Brel’s songs, be they comedic or tragic, are conveyed with real emotion and showmanship. Between the actors, the band and the sumptuous decor, you won’t want to leave Paris behind come the night’s end.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is on at Charing Cross Theatre until 31st October 2014, for further information or to book visit here.