Jacques Brel, Belgian singer/songwriter, was what the French would call a ‘chansonnier’ – a story-teller of profound, often tragic, dark and raucous songs like Amsterdam. Brel is a cult figure and artistic father to Bob Dylan and the new wave of singer/songwriters. The best interpreters of English translations of his songs have been Marc Almond, Camille O'Sullivan, David Bowie and (in the original French Ne Me Quitte Pas, Nina Simone).
There are two ways of approached a ‘tribute’ or ‘homage’ show to our musical hero’s life: first would be to create a narrative, telling the story interspersed by interesting vignettes from his life, with theatrical presentation and lighting; second, would be cabaret-style. Unfortunately this ‘Brel’ devised and directed by Kevin Short, is a badly constructed mixture of the two, with absolutely no interesting links illuminating Brel’s life or character, except some clumsy portrayals of him drinking to excess.
There are occasional video excerpts of Brel on a large white screen at the back of the stage and while these come as something of a relief, even in these short clips of interviews and singing, Brel was so much more interesting and charismatic than the harshly sung tedium that are watching live.
The music is an uncomfortable mix of poor quality backing tracks and a two-piece live band. Mike Allison on guitar and Gulliver Ralston on piano were superb accompanists, their arrangements tight and effective, though not really in any way true to the Brel originals. Where was the accordion that these songs were crying out for? The songs themselves were unfortunately sung almost completely in English. The Impossible Dream (sung in English and serving as incidental music throughout) from the musical Man of La Mancha was the only song Brel ever adapted by other writers but his adaptation was into French, so this was an inaccurate and improbable dream.
Peter Straker’s own career is fascinating and includes iconic West End show Hair, cast albums and working with Freddie Mercury however, here as Brel he is seriously mis-cast as he looks and sounds nothing like Brel. A show about Straker’s own life could be interesting and suit his performance.
If you want an “homage” to the songs of Brel, you can do no better than to see Camille O'Sullivan live on the fringe circuit; if you want a terrific narrative of a charismatic performer’s life go see Movin' Melvin Brown, also on the fringe circuit (indeed, playing at the Komedia this Brighton fringe); if you want a "tribute" to Brel maybe you can find one somewhere. This is not it.
Better to watch a complete documentary of the real man. This production detracted from, rather than added to, any appreciation of Brel or his work.