ARTS, Music, Theatre & Performing Arts

Words and music by Jacques Brel
Directed by Michael Hurst
Presented by Silo Theatre
Concert Chamber, Auckland | November 1-24

On the programme for Silo’s new show Brel, it is proudly written: “Profound. Intimate. Bold. Cabaret Noir.” It’s a high standard they set, and one the show both meets and surpasses.

I haven’t seen a show quite like Brel before, which falls somewhere in between musical, play, and cabaret. There is no dialogue as such; rather, the dialogue is all in the music, with lyrics provided by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. It’s a fitting choice: Brel’s lyrics are more illuminating, penetrating, and affecting than the dialogue in most plays. Rather than relying on dialogue to determine the relationships between the performers or any sense of plot, we instead focus on the very careful, watchable movements of the performers between and during each song for backstory and context. It works, and more often than not, the performers who aren’t singing are just as interesting to watch as those who are.

It would be silly to go on without mentioning the performers themselves. Silo has put together a cast of four performers who I would never expect to see together onstage: Shihad frontman Jon Toogood, New Zealand musician Tama Waipara, Fur Patrol singer Julia Deans, and acting legend Jennifer Ward-Lealand. It’s an eclectic mix and one that serves the show well; all four have very different voices and presences that lend different shades to the songs and the show as a whole.

Jon Toogood and Tama Waipara play almost complete opposites; Toogood’s rugged, earthy edge against Waipara’s softer, warmer side makes for an appealing partnership onstage. Toogood tackles one of Brel’s more famous songs, ‘Amsterdam’, with a large voice and personality that takes over the whole space, while Waipara performs the over-it humour of Jackie with bracing sardonicism. Their duet of ‘Girls and Dogs’ is a standout, brilliantly playing up the humour of the piece.

Julia Deans also has a chance to shine with ‘Songs for Old Lovers’; switching from English to French and back again without missing a beat, she is seemingly able to bring the lyrics up from her very soul. She acquits herself well in other songs, especially the funny ‘Carousel’, and is always a fascinating presence to watch onstage.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, however, was the highlight of the show. She gets one of Brel’s most well-trodden and best numbers in ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, and draws the entire audience into the quiet, sad song, but also delivers arresting moments with ‘My Childhood’ and ‘Marieke’. From the very first number, ‘La Diablo’, she stands out amongst the ensemble, and moves around the stage in a way that is both entirely natural and genuinely felt, and yet impossible to look away from. For one song—I can’t remember which—she simply stands against the back wall, framed with a bluish-purple light and looks like something out of a ‘60s fashion magazine. It’s an image I wish I could take a photo of and hang on my living room wall.

It’s just one of many brilliant examples of production design from Jane Hakaraia and Sean Lynch. From the moment we walk into the Concert Chamber—a versatile space that just reeks of it’s own personal history—it’s like we’re transported into some bar in a back alley in Germany during harder times. Low-key lamps provide a lot of the lighting and atmosphere, and there’s ample furniture for the actors to just sit and watch from. There are frequent images like this throughout the show, and some are breathtaking in both authenticity and emotional impact. The design is never showy, though; it emphasizes and sends home the performances throughout.

I wish I knew more about music so I could effectively review the efforts of the band and orchestrations provided by Leon Radojkovic, who also plays the piano. Jonathan Burgess, Abraham Kunin, and Simon Walker fill out the band with guitar, bass, and drums respectively. So I’ll just say that it sounded awesome, and they really nail the bigger moments in each song.

Brel is a great many things: a great play with well-defined characters and affecting moments; a great musical with big moments and performances; a great concert of songs backed by an amazing band. Finally, it’s just a great show. You’ll regret missing it if you don’t see it. (A soundtrack or cast recording would be a must-buy from me!)