Review: Richard Thompson’s Cabaret of Souls, Royal Festival Hall

“You call this art, I call it drivel”

Opening the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre, was Richard Thompson’s Cabaret of Souls in its European premiere here. Thompson is curating the whole festival but this song cycle was composed for Danny Thompson’s 70th birthday and was played here by Richard on guitar, Danny on bass, a 10 person string section and vocalists who included Harry Shearer of The Simpsons and Judith Owen, his wife.

A twisted version of a reality talent show, with souls in limbo singing for their survival in front of a sardonic judge. I think the songs were meant to represent the seven deadly sins, but it wasn’t hugely clear to me. There was definitely gluttony, a painfully transparent attack on critics which I assume was pride, but the weirdness was that everyone seemed to be being judged by the same harsh standard, no matter what their sin. So a murderer was the same as a woman who had plastic surgery, a rather tenuous analogy one feels.

Musically it is a very mixed bag: there’s a lot of the folk-based music one would expect from Richard Thompson, but it also delves into a range of other styles, cartoon jazz and a Broadway pastiche stuck out for me. The more comical ones were tolerable, mainly due to Shearer’s wonderfully dry delivery and Owens’ playfulness, but the serious, message-driven ones were largely unbearably moralistic, making the evening drag terribly for me, despite it only being 80 minutes.

Matters were not helped by the man sitting next to me who chuckled loudly at every single couplet, no matter what it was about, and seemed to rocking along to some internal rhythm, his swaying and clapping bore no connection to the actual music and became increasingly annoying. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Running time: 80 minutes
Programme cost: the Meltdown festival brochure is £5

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