Monday, 27 October 2014

Theatre review: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris



I love the Charing Cross Theatre for its location; smack-down next to Charing Cross Station where I take my train home from it is the easiest theatre in London for me to visit. However, despite its close proximity to travel means, the productions that make their way to the theatre have been more miss than hit for me and for a while I was reluctant to watch anything put up in the space.

This changed earlier this year when I saw the moving and mesmerising Lost Boy, which beautifully portrayed the parallels between George Llewelyn Davies and the iconic character of Peter Pan he was the inspiration for, as well as the hilariously stagey Ushers the Musical; the Charing Cross Theatre was once more in my good graces.

And so I was very keen to check out their latest production; Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Growing up in the Netherlands I was already very familiar with Brel's moodful melodies and with a cast led by West End favourites Daniel Boys (Avenue Q) and Gina Beck (Wicked), I had high hopes that this would be a very special evening indeed.


(l-r) David Burt, Eve Polycarpou, Gina Beck and Daniel Boys ©Photo by Scott Rylander

First things first, while this was initially billed as a musical this is far more a revue set in a nightclub in Paris; heavily perfumed air and smoky haziness filling the auditorium before and during the show to set the mood. Even the orchestra on stage had a gypsy, rustic appearance, elevating the authentic ambience.

For this production Brel's French and Dutch songs were translated into English which, while certainly beneficial for the majority of the audience to gain a greater understanding of the music's beautiful and meaningful lyrics, made it lose the French vibrato which makes Brel's chansons so iconic. There is something in the rolling R's that adds a rough romanticism to the language; bringing an entirely new dimension to the ballads, which the polite British tones simply could not.

Nonetheless, after a somewhat lacklustre start, the talented cast did a good job of projecting the heartfelt tones of Brel's chansons into the theatre. The quarter of performers was made up by the previously mentioned Beck and Boys and completed by David Burt (Kiss Me KateCrazy for You) and Eve Polycarpou (In The Heights), and each of the four singers brought something unique to the songs.


©Photo by Scott Rylander

The start of the show lacked the passion and emotional punch Brel so beautifully weaved into his performances and so initially I felt disappointed watching the stilted production on that stage near Charing Cross station. However, when Polycarpou sung the exceptionally moving My Childhood, the revue did a turnaround for me and I almost started to believe that I was in fact watching a performance in an underground club in Paris in the 1950s.

The show was very much up and down the entire evening, but the moments of brilliance that emerged -  Burt's Amsterdam, uplifting group number Brussels and Polycarpou's showstopping Ne Me Quitte Pas in the second half, which perfectly captured the raw and powerful emotion of Brel's original - were such delights that they were worth sitting through some of the too musical theatre influenced imitations of the iconic chansons.


©Photo by Scott Rylander

Despite a perhaps lack of French understanding by what was a largely British audience, I believe Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris would've benefitted hugely from being performed in the original French (and on occasional Dutch) it was intended.

The powerful emotions that seep through the French language were sorely missed during the show, and while the cast was certainly talented and there were definite moments throughout that made this production worth a visit, there is only so much they could do with the material given and so rather than having an entirely exceptional show, there were only snippets of it throughout the night.



Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is playing at the Charing Theatre until 22 November 2014, you can buy tickets here.

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