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The Song Project at the Royal Court – review

Wende performs a blistering new series of texts

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Wende in The Song Project
© Ali Wright

The great thing about going to the theatre, is that sometimes it is like a step into the unknown. I knew very little about The Song Project in advance, but I liked a lot of the playwrights involved, and have an abiding fondness for the theatre. It didn't seem like a bad way to spend 90 minutes on a Friday night.

Then blow me down, it turns out to be sensational. Memorable. Totally intoxicating, and absolutely of itself. I can't recommend it enough, which is unfortunate because it is sold out for its short run, but it is coming back in 2022, so look out for it.

First what it is. The designer Chloe Lamford and the Dutch singer, pianist and composer Wende came up with the idea of asking five female playwrights – E V Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson – to write the text for songs as if they were a play. Isobel Waller-Bridge composed the music and became a co-creator as did choreographer Imogen Knight. Three exceptional musicians – Nils Davidse, Louise Anna Duggan, and Midori Jaeger- accompany the songs on piano, percussion, cello and multiple keyboards.

The song cycle was due to open in the Theatre Downstairs but flooding there pushed it upstairs into the smaller space, where it sits perfectly, its sense of intimate confession, at once challenging and confiding, playing beautifully in an arena designed by Debbie Duru, with swathes of greenery surrounding the musicians and Lee Curran's cleverly effective lighting switching the mood between songs, from bright neon bars to gentle spotlights.

The whole thing opens with E V Crowe's Dark Black Pool, a mysterious, semi-spoken ballad about conquering fear and ends with the joyous, pop-inflected Let It Be, written by Stef Smith, and with a chorus that you might actually want to join in.

Not much binds the 16 numbers in between, each creating its own little world, from frightening to funky, with Waller-Bridge's music responding to each mood. But themes emerge: the tension between terror and bravery, motherhood, loss and love, acceptance. Some of the songs strain a bit too hard to be lyrically perceptive but most land their points powerfully.

I particularly loved the pulsating scariness of Debris Stevenson's Horror Story, sung against a red-lit wall, with its sharp observations about a nightmare of domestic life – "I'd moved into a fridge, the same colour as the toaster/colour as the sofa, colour as a bridge"- and the sad loneliness of Stef Smith's Bones which asks "after I die, pile up and polish my bones/as a monument to a life spent alone." There is so much to relish in all the writing and composition.

Whatever the song, however, what makes the evening unmissable is the commitment and ferocity of Wende's central performance. Whether sitting quietly at the piano, or standing defiantly on its lid, this Dutch singer is a force of nature. She's famous on the continent, less so here, so the chance to experience her remarkable free-ranging voice and her theatrical intensity is a pleasure.

She creates a rapport with the audience, at once sophisticated and relaxed. The entire evening becomes so engrossing, so magical, that it felt as though we had been transported. Experimental yet emotional and absolutely, directly to the heart.

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