Belgian singer Jacques Brel has enthralled audiences since the 1950s with his sultry, poetic songs about life, sex, death and everything in between. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a celebration of twenty-eight of Brel’s best-loved chansons, staged cabaret-style at Charing Cross Theatre.
Once we adjusted to the fact that the show is more of a cabaret than a musical, with individual songs enacted by four actors accompanied live by a five-man band, we were happy to go wherever Brel’s music took us. There isn’t an overarching story to tell here, but twenty-eight short stories, set on a Parisian-style stage. Although the lyrics have been translated into English (and although Brel was Belgian), there’s something unmistakably French and wholly Parisian about the show, and Andrew Keates’ production creates and maintains a smoky Gallic atmosphere.
The major selling point of the show is the music. Established fans of Jacques Brel will relish seeing the imaginative way in which each hit is brought to life by the cast; and the uninitiated may well be converted. All four actors are given moments to shine. The impressive David Burt brings forth tears with Fanette, recalling his lost love; and is delightfully funny in both Jackie, celebrating his status as a hellraiser, and in Funeral Tango, in which he plays a dead man reflecting with witty cynicism at the thoughts of the mourners at his funeral. We enjoyed David Burt’s performance enormously – he has a wonderfully expressive face – but we felt that his acting was sometimes better than his singing (which often has a Rex Harrison speak-singing quality). The moment where he married both skills the best was in Amsterdam – the exhilarating conclusion to Act One where the shouted chorus achieves a rousing passion.
The dynamic of having two older and two younger actors of both sexes works extremely well, allowing songs to be shared between actors. Thus the youngsters Daniel Boys and Gina Beck share If We Only Have Love, and later No Love You’re Not Alone, adding a touch of innocence to the proceedings. We’ve seen Daniel Boys on stage many times before, and he is always accomplished. He relishes the contrasting character guises demanded of him here. Gina Beck is also very fine, and comes into her own with a stirring performance of My Death, which, with added electric guitar, is the closest to a gutsy rock concert rendition of a song in this set.
We strongly enjoyed the performances of all four actors, but special plaudits go to Eve Polycarpou, whose amazingly soulful voice thrilled us all evening. It’s a rare and powerful singer who can make every hair on your body stand on end coax your eyes to well up, but Polycarpou achieved this repeatedly. She was especially enchanting with My Childhood, Sons Of, and (playing acoustic guitar) Ne Me Quitte Pas. In these moments, Jacques Brel truly was alive and well, and being channelled by Eve Polycarpou.
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is the sort of show where you would do well to sit as close to the stage as possible, because of the intimacy of the songs and the performances. It runs the gamut of emotions from amusing songs like Jackie, Madeleine, Middle Class and Carousel to the heart-wrenching likes of Fanette, Marieke and My Childhood. Invest in a glass of wine, sit back and enjoy. The musicians are note-perfect and the sound level is well-pitched to avoid the music drowning out the singers. The melodies are generally carried by piano and guitar, accompanied by the irresistibly French sound of the accordion.
We arrived at the theatre unsure what to expect. We left the theatre confirmed Jacques Brel aficionados. The songs are hypnotic, and this show brings the songwriter back to life.