Peter Straker has long claimed a special affinity with the late, great Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel, first performing a version of this show at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999. Five years on, and newly directed and written by Mel Smith, who was originally only credited with co-devising it, it still lacks form and shape. Perhaps Straker wasn’t entirely joking when he refers to Smith, “whom I met briefly three weeks ago”.
But while the show – part cabaret concert, part narrated life story – may fail as it seeks to provide context for the songs, at least it has content.
In a programme of some twenty songs – out of the more than 400 Brel wrote – there’s a tantalising glimpse into the raw passion and potent power of an electrifying composer, as well as the man who now so passionately sings his work.
Straker offers a bravura, sometimes manic, turn that does have a powerful intensity but could benefit from being turned down a little – as could the volume on the overpowering five-strong band with which he has to compete.
And the under-realised use of ‘waiters’ in the auditorium is simply an embarrassment.
While script associate Peter Kenvyn also takes credit in a programme note for the translations, at least six of the songs, to my reckoning, are delivered in the English versions that were first heard in Mort Shuman and Eric Blau’s celebrated 1966 off-Broadway compilation, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.
Sadly, he is no longer alive but thanks to Straker, his work is at least temporarily living well again in London.
King’s Head, London, May 11-June 6
- Christopher Ager for The London Playhouse Company
- Mel Smith
- Musical director
- Peter Brewis
- Peter Straker
- Running time
- 1hr 20mins