Jacques Brel is Alive and Well

Blunt Fringe theatre company founder Claire Murray on coming home to produce ambitious stage shows on a budget

She is on a mission to change the perception of fringe theatre in Northern Ireland. As such, Claire Murray moved home from London last year to set up Blunt Fringe Theatre Production Company in Belfast.

Its first show, The World Goes ‘Round, featuring the songs of Kander & Ebb, opened at the Naughton Studio in the Lyric Theatre in January, garnering rave reviews.

The Belfast Telegraph called it 'an outstanding cabaret show' and actor, director and playwright Dan Gordon took to Twitter to share with his followers his love for what he described as 'a Broadway Show without having to pay for a flight or remember your passport…GO! #brilliant'.

Now the Blunt Fringe team are back with Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which runs, again at the Lyric Theatre, from November 11 – 15. Murray admits that Blunt Fringe was 'a bit of a pipe dream' when she moved back to Belfast in 2013, but now it is an exciting reality.

'I wanted to recreate the fringe theatre that exists over there [in London], which allows very successful actors and musicians to perform in smaller theatres between "proper" jobs,' says Murray.

'It is great to see the development of theatre schools like The Lir, which opened in [Dublin] in September 2011, but there are still not a lot of musical theatre opportunities in Ireland, so we end up exporting a wealth of talent who leave Ireland’s theatre industry to pursue global ambitions.

'The ambition of Blunt Fringe Productions is to entice them back now and again to perform to a home crowd.'

The Belfast-based mother-of-two acknowledges that the term 'fringe theatre' can often have negative connotations – that many people consider fringe productions ‘not quite ready’. Murray, however, rejects the idea that there is a reduction in quality in fringe shows.

The main difference between Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris and other theatre shows, Murray contends, is one of budget. But Murray believes that productions created on a shoestring can 'actually out-shine those with bigger budget'.

'Of course the big shows are impressive and you leave the theatre in an explosion of sound, effects and pyrotechnics. But the smaller shows can impact you more emotionally, and the impressive thing is what they can achieve in such a small space with a very basic set, limited effects and a lot less money.'

Murray’s eureka moment came when she was watching the professional premiere of Howard Goodall’s A Winter’s Tale at the Landor Theatre in London in 2012, featuring her musical theatre star brother, Fra Fee.

Fee is perhaps best known for playing Courfeyrac in Tom Hooper’s film adaption of Les Misérables and taking on the title role in Candide at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.

'A Winter’s Tale attracted a huge cast and creative team of the highest standard,' Murray recalls. 'The music was performed by a four-piece band, and the production was sung and acted by an impressive star cast of 18, all to a small audience of only 60.

'It was so intimate that you could not help but be moved by the emotionally powerful music and the quality of the performers. When I left the theatre that night I thought, "I want to bring this quality of experience to Belfast".'

And so she has. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which originally debuted Off Broadway in 1968, is directed by Matthew Johnson, and features a wealth of London-based and homegrown talent.

The late internationally-renowned singer-songwriter Jacques Brel composed and performed theatrical songs mainly in French and became a major influence on English-speaking performers from across the globe, artists such as David Bowie, Dionne Warwick, Leonard Cohen and Marc Almond.

The songs featured in this musical review examine themes of love, war, youth and the ups and downs of life in general, with humour running throughout the show.

Among the musical theatre performers taking to the stage in Belfast for Blunt Fringe's latest production are Colette Lennon and Gerard McCabe.

McCabe, from the north of Belfast, has been impressed with Murray and her production team, and 'can't wait' to entertain audiences at the Lyric. 'I am going to be singing loads of his lovely songs,' McCabe beams. 'It is full of show stoppers. I think people will be very impressed.'

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from November 11 – 15. Visit the Blunt Fringe website for more information.