Okay so I had absolutely no idea who Jacques Brel was, but that has never stopped me enjoying something new before. After a quick google, I discovered he was a Flemish/French singer songwriter and actor. Good job I did a cheeky google though and of course read the programme notes as if I had just watched the show “cold” I don’t think I would have had a great deal of understanding who exactly this historical figure was. None the less what I did discover was that his music is pretty good.
Designer Chris de Wilde creates a visually interesting set for Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Charing Cross Theatre; it is a genuine joy to see so many excellent musicians onstage (rather than traditionally down in the music pit.) The use of levels creates something higgledy-piggledy in an endearingly nostalgic Parisian kind of way. However despite the use of stage space, I can’t help but think that the show, 2 hours of solid music with no dialogue, would have been better off staged in a proper cabaret venue rather than a traditional rigid “end on” stage environment.
The show rolls out its greatest trump card early on; Gina Beck. Gina is a true West End star, known best for her turn as Glinda in Wicked both on the West End and in America and has also played Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Cosette in Les Miserables. With such roles under her belt, you don’t need me to tell you what a fantastic and touching performer she is and this show provides her supporters with a rare opportunity to watch her perform in an intimate venue. I have to say she really does light up the smokey stage.
Beck shares the spotlight with Daniel Boys (Spamalot, Avenue Q) David Burt (The Woman in White) and Eve Polycarpou (In The Heights) who can’t quite reach Beck’s dizzying theatrical heights. Whilst Boys was at times entertaining, Burt and Polycarpou struggled vocally to keep up with the youngsters, with Polycarpou also looking a touch lost at times during group choreography.
Whilst Polycarpou’s “sexy and somewhat raspy older French lady” act was engaging at times, it wore a little thin by the end and I was fully frustrated to see her holding a guitar during the otherwise well sung “Ne Me Quitte Pas” rather than actually playing it (no, two intro strums does not count!) I felt this was a slight slap in the face to the genuinely talented musicians onstage.
Burt’s work in “Funeral Tango” was one of the more engaging numbers of the evening, as were “Madeline” and “Carousel,” perhaps because they all involved some actual movement and, well, “acting.” I found the show saturated with “sing out to the stars in wistful melancholy” musical numbers and lacking in any real theatrical fruit. Whilst each number was nicely performed, at times I felt a little bored. Not ideal.
Ultimately Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is pretty niche. Great if you know of him already and have a pre-existing interest in his work, however I don’t think theatre should rely on a prior knowledge as a basis for entertainment. Those whole don’t know of Brel’s work may enjoy the show for its Parisian vibe, which is present but could be presented with a greater conviction.
Honestly though, the biggest pull to the show is Gina Beck and if that is the reason you are going then you won’t be disappointed.
Jacques Brel runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 22nd November. Tickets can be purchased via the Charing Cross Theatre website or via London Theatre Direct.