Brighton Fringe 2012
Peter Straker is a brilliant singer and he sings a wonderful selection of Jacques Brel’s iconoclastic songs. Although there is an attempt at making this into a theatrical piece by introducing some narrative with multi-media, we don’t get much of a sense of Brel’s life or indeed of his character. The real strength here is the songs, and for those who love Brel’s songs, you don’t get much greater singing of them than Straker. I would have preferred to see him singing them as himself, with commentary rather than the impossible attempt of assuming Brel’s persona.
Peter Straker is a well- known singer who has been on the music circuit very successfully for many years. His background includes being in the original Hair production in the West End and working closely with Freddie Mercury. In this cabaret style piece, with snatches of narrative, we get a sense of his superb voice and vocal range, and his powerful presence on stage.
The focus of this performance is the Belgian singer and songwriter, Jacques Brel. There is a minimal set with a few prompts including changes of clothing that he uses in between songs. He talks to the audience, tells us about aspects of Brel’s life and gives a sense of Brel’s idiosyncrasies. Straker was accompanied by two excellent musicians; Mike Allison on guitar and Gulliver Ralston on piano.
Peter Straker’s Brel is billed as a multi-media show that spans Brel’s life, and indeed he does fashion some incongruous links by attempting to create a narrative on which to hang the songs. For anyone who knows and loves Brel’s songs, this is a great evening. You can forgive the minimal narrative, the video backdrop of Brel speaking and singing, where his voice is not synced properly, and the second line of subbing is lost below the bottom of the screen. You can ignore the obvious fact that Peter Straker bears no possible resemblance to Brel at all. It is sufficient that he does superb justice to his songs.
Straker chose a great variety of Brel’s songs; the well-known ones such as Amsterdam, Matilda, Jackie, Next, Carousal and some less familiar such as The Flat Country. He sings with tremendous range both vocally and emotionally. I was entirely absorbed by each song and felt moved and excited by his interpretation of Brel’s music. It was in the moments between songs that I felt relatively disengaged, certainly emotionally. Little devices he used to attempt to inhabit Brel’s persona, such as downing glasses of beer he ’took’ off a woman in the audience, and removing her pack of cigarettes were slightly amusing, certainly the first time he drank a glass of beer in one gulp, but became rather silly by the third time. The change of clothes was again a device to make it all more theatrical, though I felt it detracted from the real strength of the show, which was his brilliant singing and the wonderful songs.
I would almost have liked to see Straker pay homage, which is what he is doing, by being himself and simply talking about Brel, telling us about his life and philosophies, with the aid of some video as he does, and singing his songs. Straker is sufficiently great in his own right to assume the position of presenting songs of someone he greatly admires. He doesn’t have to push those boundaries of credulity by asking us to imagine he is someone so iconic and individualistic as Brel when we would appreciate and adore his singing anyway.