Incongruity of setting can sometimes add something to a performance. While La bohème is currently nestling beautifully in a pub in Kilburn High Road, Helen Chadwick’s “A Cappella Song Theatre” piece sits comfortably in the relative opulence of the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio.
While OperaUpClose takes “high art” and pours it onto the streets, Dalston Songs reverses the process and brings the stuff of street, bedsit and kebab shop into the theatre. If there’s something of the cuckoo about the work, it is perfectly at one with the themes of displacement and home discomforts.
Chadwick takes the words of her neighbours in Dalston – a fantastic mix of races where some 79 languages are spoken - and spins them into 70 minutes of unaccompanied song, exploring what home is and, more importantly, what it is not. “Home is a feeling, it’s not a place” intones one resident on the soundtrack, for the words to picked up by the singers below.
There’s a delicacy in her textures and a tendency towards sentimentality, but with undoubted poignancy in much of the material. In particular, a man dares to phone home in a faraway land (“Hello I’m calling”) only to have to convince his parents that he is truly their son. What greater sense of dislocation could there be?
There could be greater variety in the songs. It is nearly halfway through before the female voices are replaced by male and then the same melancholic tone is carried over. A few bursts of celebration do break the mood, such as the joyous “Armenian hands” and the ingenious rhythms of the all-male “Card Game,” while the over-lapping lines of “Like a displaced person” for a moment tugs towards a welcome dissonance.
In addition to the words of ordinary people on the street – which we are told includes snatches of overheard conversation on a train - she intersperses fragments of poems, culled from varied sources. These may break up the inevitable banality of some contributions but there are plenty of art songs based on verse and what’s novel about Dalston Songs is the clever setting of everyday speech, with its sneezes, ums and errs and mild obscenities. It’s these that impress the most.
Chadwick (who co-directs and performs) is joined by seven talented singers – Rakie Ayola, Dave Camlin, Barbara Gellhorn, Michael Henry, Aykut Hilmi, James Lailey and Soraya Mahdouai – who seem completely at home in her ethnic-inspired idioms. Co-director Steven Hoggett layers on the simplest of choreography to great effect.
The whole leaves us pondering what most of us take totally for granted. Home.
Dalston Songs plays in the Linbury Studio for three more performances on 5 & 6 February. Tickets on 020 7304 4000 or www.roh.org.uk