Okay, I’ll venir nettoyer : asked to name a French singer, I’m likely to go Edith Piaf…er..er and that will be it. Asked to name a singer in French, however, and I’ll easily get twice as many marks. Oh yes – Jacques Brel: Belgian he might have been, as Belgian as Hergé, waffles and Hercules Poirot, but French was the language for him. No matter that he was born in a Flemish town, as far as his singing career was concerned, he was resolutely Walloon. Even that greatest of British francophiles, Julian Barnes, is happy to give M. Brel his unrestricted admiration as a wielder of that most distinctive of Northern European languages.
Why am I going on about this? Well, for a start because the programme does, so it must be in the contemplation of those behind the show itself, but mainly to show up the stark fact that this is a two hour revue of non-stop Jacque Brel songs – translated into English. Let me return to Miss Piaf to show why this is a problem: ‘No, nothing of nothing! No, I don’t regret nothing!’ Does that capture the great lady? Or how about ‘Pink Life’? It doesn’t work, does it?
Let me say quickly that the translations are not as vulgar as my examples; indeed they are seamlessly executed, and the show isn’t some bright spark’s new idea, but a well established revue that won awards and lengthy runs when it was first put together in the seventies. But to this writer at least, it is nonetheless deeply flawed. Not only are the songs in English, here they are illustrated with back-projections of Brighton Pier, the Clifton suspension bridge, Charing Cross tube station (oh, and then, clunk – a Dutch brothel). It is as if we are invited to pretend that Brel was in fact English, or more likely, that he might as well have been English, he just happened to be writing a different language. Yet the songs are about Brussels, about the ravages of the war in Northern France, lusty men, prostitutes and mortality, so much mortality. That won’t wash in England. I hear a Northern voice saying ‘Oh stop being so miserable and eat yer mushy peas!’
So it’s pretty clear that Brel purists are going to have to keep well away, rather as true lovers of Wagner will be giving the ENO a wide berth, but if not for them, what does the show have to offer those of us who are coming fresh to the great man? Well, nothing of his life, that’s for starters. There is no narrative of any kind here, it’s just song, song, song with not even a word to the audience to link them. They’re fine songs, doubtless – harmonically vanilla, but melodically beguiling in all sorts of ways and full of fascinating and dark subject matter – but possibly better in smaller doses. (‘I’m not sure I even like torch songs’ murmured my companion afterwards.) The four performers put them across with wonderful poise and vocal shading – rising star Gina Beck is a particular pleasure, and David Burt affects the dissipated Gallic roué convincingly – and they are ably supported by a very capable band. But, not to labour my point, the moment when it really worked was a moving rendition of ‘Ne me quitte pas’. ‘Don’t leave me’? I don’t think so.