I think I’d heard of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” before I’d actually heard of Jacques Brel himself. The show first saw the light of day in 1968, off-Broadway, and gained something of a cult status as it clocked up a four year run in its initial production, plus the many other international versions that followed. But through my early years the work of M. Brel remained something of a mystery to me. Then about fifteen years ago my friend the Lord Liverpool introduced me to the album “Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel” and particularly the song Jacky, which famously was banned by the BBC because of its lyrics – you won’t want me to reprint them here. Suffice to say, I loved it – and the rest of the album, with my other favourite being the savage Next – more of which later.
The album also features If You Go Away, but to be honest I always preferred Terry Jacks’ 1974 version, his follow up hit to “Seasons in the Sun”, (always enough to reduce a grown man to a deluge of tears), and which was itself an adaptation of Brel’s Le Moribond. But I realise now that in comparison to the originals, these Scott Walker renditions are really overblown, over-orchestrated and over-fussy. So when I saw that “Jacques Brel IAAWALIP” was having a revival at the Charing Cross Theatre I thought it was a perfect opportunity finally to acquaint myself with this cult show. However, I knew that it wouldn’t be Mrs Chrisparkle’s thing. If I’d said to her, “would you like to see a show based on the songs of a Belgian who died in 1978” she would have looked at me more than askance. But my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford is another Brelhead, and so it was that he and I went to see the show last Monday night.
I’d never been to the Charing Cross Theatre before. When I was growing up it was the Players Theatre Club, having been home to the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in the 1950s. If my memory serves me right, in the 1970s members of the Players Theatre used to perform on the BBC’s Good Old Days programme (all together in your best Leonard Sachs voice: Once again, Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!) But today it is its own little theatre in its own right, seating 250 at a push, and with a rather charming atmosphere, helped or hindered (you decide) by the regular rumblings of trains passing overhead, and with a comfortable bar/restaurant offering an excellent and filling pre-theatre dinner at a much cheaper price than is decent for such a Central London location.
To say the show has a simple structure would be something of an understatement. If, like me, you were expecting some kind of narrative, or some theme to the evening, you might be in for a disappointment. I had thought it would be a kind of Side By Side By Brel, with some Ned Sherrin style bonhomie taking us through his career and illustrating it with choice examples of his work. Alternatively, it might have been an early example of the Mamma Mia genre, where you have an original plot but into which the Brel numbers would have dovetailed perfectly. But it’s neither. You simply have a running order of 28 songs, performed by the cast of four, accompanied by Dean Austin’s splendid five piece band nicely integrated with the action, scattered around the set, which resembles a modest cabaret club. The cabaret feels spills out into the auditorium in fact, as the usual first few rows have been taken out and replaced with five cabaret tables, each with four chairs. His Majesty and I sat at one of these and I have to say that, although you really have to look up high, our proximity to some of the action was breathtaking. At times it was as though we were on the stage with them, or they were performing promenade style around us – Miss Gina Beck even poured us out a glass of water. There’s no particularly rhyme or reason to the sequence of the songs that I could make out, no attempt to create a real narrative strand; but that’s not a problem as each song is its own mini masterpiece of a drama, and there are plenty of opportunities for the cast to excel both musically and dramatically.
The structure of the show means that its success or failure lies completely with the quality of the songs and performances; and for me I can definitely say it was a resounding success throughout. The songs that I recognised, I loved; and those that I didn’t know were, almost without exception, exciting discoveries. The cast are a superb combination of young, pure and idealistic (Gina Beck and Daniel Boys – brilliant in last year’s High Society) and the more mature and experienced (Eve Polycarpou and David Burt – an excellent gangster in Kiss Me Kate and hilarious in Hamlet the Musical), giving a nice sense of balance to the production. The evening begins with Eve singing Le Diable (Ça va) in both French and English, creating a very moody and melancholic atmosphere, which leads into If We Only Have Love and the sumptuous Alone. The English lyrics, by the way, were written by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman who together created the original production of the show. Other first half highlights included a very original presentation of Jacky by David, with a laid back, reflective, self-satisfied first verse, which then gains triumphant self-confidence as the song progresses. David also performed a very emotional rendition of Fanette which I really loved; and the whole company joined together for The Desperate Ones – again with the performers right up close to us you could see their unflinching commitment to what they were doing which somehow made it even moving; these Brel songs can be very raw as you witness the passion and pain in the performers’ concentration. There was also a very perky performance of Timid Frieda by Gina and then David took us into the interval with a rousingly angry (as is traditional) version of Amsterdam.
Act Two began with the whole company performing Madeleine (HRH’s favourite) – a tune that I now realise was shamelessly ripped off in the song Veronique in the 1970s musical On The Twentieth Century. Act Two continued with some spectacular performances including Eve singing Ne me quitte pas in French, sat on the edge of the stage with her guitar, right in front of us – a right goose-bumps moment if ever there was one; Daniel and David doing a very funny version of Middle Class (during which David cheersed me with his champagne glass; Gina singing a very moving Old Folks, David providing a hilarious and immaculately timed Funeral Tango, Daniel performing a very touching Song For Old Lovers and the whole company presenting a highly disturbing and effectively staged Next (Au Suivant), the least romantic song about sex that you could imagine. There is some nice subtle updating going on with a few of the numbers, with Iraq and Afghanistan taking their place and even Nigel Farage muscles in on the action at one point.
I really enjoyed the show, but what was the reaction of a true Brel aficionado? The Crown Prince was extremely impressed with it, and was in fact on tippy-toe point of leading an ovation when a sudden wave of self-consciousness overtook him, which he regretted all the way back to the station. Despite the fact that it is now 36 years since Jacques Brel literally was alive and well and living in Paris, the show gives us another opportunity to appreciate his extraordinary contribution to 20th century music and is a fitting and lovingly performed tribute to one helluva character. The show is on until 22nd November and if you like your musical entertainment to be francophone and with a bit of bite, I can’t think of anything better.