A s’offrir en partage”
No he’s not. Jacques Brel is dead and buried in French Polynesia next to Paul Gauguin but his unmistakable spirit is to be found in the oddly sterile surroundings of the Charing Cross Theatre in this revue of the music that made a maître of the world of chanson. Comprising nearly 30 of his songs performed by a company of four, director Andrew Keates has made a determined choice to avoid the concert-type presentation often associated with revues for something much more theatrical.
It is a choice that mostly works. Brel’s music explored the length and breadth of the human condition and Keates uses this to offer a wide variety of staging choices for the material, treating each song almost as its own little world whether it is love lost, love found, sailors drinking or funerals watched. They come in different forms too, a music hall vaudeville turn here, a dramatic scene played out amongst the cabaret tables up front there, and some pure uncomplicated singing for good measure too.
And with a talented cast of Gina Beck, Daniel Boys, David Burt and Eve Polycarpou, you can’t go too wrong and they all deliver. The more experienced voices of Burt and Polycarpou feel beautifully at home in the world of chanson – her impassioned opener of ‘Le Diable (Ça Va)’ is bursting with heartfelt meaning and his closer of ‘Amsterdam’ is equally stirring in an accomplished performance. Beck and Boys bring a different energy to their work, more character-based perhaps than deeply felt in the same way but still convincing in its passion.
If any reservations emerge, they lie with the show itself. It is perhaps a little long, losing its level of intensity occasionally across the chopping and changing of the 30-some songs. And though the English translations by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman are well done, capturing much of the Gallic sensibility of Brel’s work (even if he was a Belgian), there’s so much power and emotion in the original French that is only hinted at here (‘Quand On N’a Que L’amour’ just sounds more evocative that ‘If We Only Have Love’ for example). When it is utilised, as in a glorious ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ from Polycarpou, it works so well it feels a shame not to have used it more. Still, it’s an enjoyable French fancy of a show.