Jacques Brel is Alive...

Blunt Fringe reanimate the husky Belgian songwriter and 'matador of emotion'

There comes a point when one needs to put away childish things, like Serge Gainsbourg. For now we see through a glass, darkly, Jacques Brel: matador of emotion, belittler of the bourgeoisie, fervent fumier.

Brel appears on the Lyric Theatre stage spattered across a bare brick wall like graffiti, smoking elegantly as plumes of dry ice emerge from behind a drum kit. Through the mist comes an older man, shabby genteel, in his cravat and swept back hair.

The bare stage is an existential bear pit, the theatre floor a naked and savage land, as characters in shirtsleeves and fur jackets play out their well worn dramas of every day tragedy.

The man fondles a 'Cher Jean' letter that has been resting on the back of a wooden box dansette and murmurs 'Ne me quitte pas', one of Brel’s loveliest songs. As the band stir into action for 'If We Only Have Love', the dramatis personae gather (excepting Woman One, Joanna Strand, who has lost her voice prior to the show).

Brel's songs are tales of sorrow and regret, euphoria and anger, told in looks, sly asides, in hands offered and declined. Philip Rham’s Man Two has a ragged, expressive voice, adding grist and drama to the showbiz professionalism of the younger cast members.

His jazzy version of 'Jacky' is fresh and vibrant, borne up by drummer Andrew Brown’s deftness and subtlety. The dry ice still pumps out, a poor substitute for blue curls of authentic Gitane smoke, but Rham is lost in the drama, breathlessly embodying Jacky’s various alter egos.

There is no narrative or through-line, no artlessly contrived Mama Mia! style story in this musical review which originally debuted Off Broadway in 1968: the songs are the story. But given that Brel’s canon is one of the richest of the 20th century, the stripped down approach feels anachronistic – you wouldn’t get a new show like this.

I, however, wouldn’t have it any other way. The lack of artifice in this Blunt Fringe Theatre Company production displays the bare bones of the songs, the pain, the hurt, the feeling bubbling up, over-flowing, in the lyrics.

'The Old Folks' stings the eyes a bit, especially sung to a room full of the affluent middle-aged: a song about old age, about slowing down in 'their homes that smell of time'. 'Bachelor’s Dance', meanwhile, has been refitted, oddly – or maybe not so oddly – as 'Pinball Wizard' as Man One (Gerard McCabe) hurls pictures of women on the floor before gathering them up again in a panic. It’s a nice detail; the choreography is loose and naturalistic throughout.

'Funeral Tango' is perfect: mannered, sneering, arms windmilling, as Man One recounts the various indignities meted out to Brel post mortem, propped up against a step ladder like Nosferatu newly returned from Homebase. His collars bristle against his microphone as he winces from each fresh slight.

For 'Fanette', Romano Viazanni’s airless accordion mimics the lapping of waves as McCabe sings this song of lost love by the seashore. The piano and bass are showily brilliant throughout, all trills and little knots of notes. There are no plodding chord sequences here – everything is sugar coated, frosted.

'Port of Amsterdam' is the first song that is problematic. McCabe, hanging off the step ladder, seems to waver in his commitment to the song and his resultant timorous yodel has echoes of Johnny Logan. The other two characters stand at the base to prop him up, gargling like they’re frightened of the dentist. A shame.

Once part two starts, however, the energy is up and maintained for the rest of the evening. Here is where Colette Lennon’s Woman Two shines. On 'My Death', there is perhaps a touch too much melodrama, and odd country rock inflections sneaking through, but 'Carousel' is exactly right, perhaps the highlight of the show, with her pristine Petula Clarke diction pitched perfectly against the woozy, lurching quality of the music. 

This is an extremely assured production from a theatre company still less than a year old, especially as they are performing with one cast member down. It ends, as it must, with more bruised romantic musings from Brel himself, hunch-shouldered and grinning ruefully and alive, tonight at least, in Belfast.

Visit the Lyric Theatre website for information on forthcoming events.