ALIVE AND BREL at the Alma, Bristol

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Hereford might seem an unlikely setting for a revival of Jacques Brel’s work, but thanks to resident singer Tim Brown, who hails originally from New Jersey, alongside singers Alison and Steve Allan, pianist Jon Weller and flautist Esther Kay, a two-set cabaret revue of 20 of Brel’s chansons, using Mort Shuman and Eric Blau’s 1968 English adaptations and translations, makes for a pleasant surprise package at the intimate Alma Tavern Theatre in Bristol.

The trio of singers have presented their revue as part of the Three Choirs Festival fringe in both Hereford and Gloucester. The warm reception they were given last night should encourage them to seek more bookings further afield, and certainly back in Bristol where there is clearly an appetite for Brel’s intimate and passionate observations.

Brown is the son of a New York cabaret singer. He was classically trained and has performed in musical theatre, barbershop, light opera and more recently in the Hereford Cathedral Choir. Through his connections there and with the Errol Robinson Five based in that city he has pieced together a group very capable of depicting Brel’s catalogue. In particular the blending of the three voices was particularly pleasing, and gave the performance originality. Jon Weller on piano and Esther Kay’s beautifully sensitive flute playing provided excellent accompaniment throughout. What the show could have benefitted from was some kind of narrative about Brel himself. At the Tobacco factory last year Kate Dimbleby presented an arresting portrayal of Dory Previn’s songs. What took that show to higher ground was the background story of Previn’s life alongside the work. Revealing the singer empowered the songs all the more.

Brel was 23 when he started to write songs that he performed for family and friends and later on the Brussels cabaret circuit. By the time he died aged 49 in 1978 he had sold millions of records around the world, was a film star and the owner of an ocean-going yacht, before succumbing to lung cancer at a young age.

As a performer Brel combined quiet reflection with seething intensity. His songs work like mini films laced with dark observation and ironic wit. ‘Middle Class’ conveys the journey of those who mock the bourgeoisie only to become it themselves. ‘Carousel’ (or as originally, ‘La Valse a Mille Temps’) is a glorious musical round that speeds and whirls like a life out of control. Alison Allan put her all into ‘Sons Of’ – a uniting cri de coeur for parents everywhere, while Steve Allan perfectly captured the poignant ‘Fanette’, a haunting piece about unrequited love. There were visions of ruddy fishermen eating fish heads and tails in ‘Amsterdam’, delicate romantic mishaps in ‘Les Bonbons’ and ‘Mathilde’, and existential musings through ‘Old Folks’ and ‘Alone’. Brel paints a tableau of imperfect humanity with its heart very much on its sleeve.

As Brown said at the end of this performance, “Once you have heard Brel you are hooked.” With a little more theatrical honing of the presentation, Alive and Brel has every chance of success.    ★★★☆☆   Simon Bishop   14/06/15