Go and watch Camille O’Sullivan. Go and watch Camille O’Sullivan and sit in the front row. If you’ve seen her before, all you need to know is that she’s as good as ever. If you haven’t seen her, read on. Camille O’Sullivan is one of the finest cabaret singers working today. It’s not just the voice, although the voice is phenomenal: a smoke-stained Irish growl shifting from a roar to a whisper in the blink of an eye. It’s not just the wickedly surreal stage chat. It’s not even the choice of songs, though she does have great taste: expect a mix of David Bowie, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Jacques Brel and the weirder edges of Tom Waits. It’s what she does with the songs.
O’Sullivan really knows how to mess with other people’s material. She warps and twists songs with such passion and devilish glee that even die-hard fans of the originals happily swallow their complaints. Her unaccompanied rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ is the best thing I have ever seen on a stage. Strange and unnatural things happen to Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, which alternates between hushed melancholy and deafening barroom swagger, culminating in a vicious solo from her saxophonist. It’s a moment typical of the evening, with Camille ducking out of the way to allow each of her talented band members a chance to display their chops. She’s also one hell of a performer, creating a self-contained narrative with every song, often using the bizarre paraphernalia which litter the stage. She begins Tom Waits’ ‘When the World is Green’ by introducing her ‘friend from Dublin’, a caged plastic songbird that twitters disconcertingly throughout the song, almost but not quite in tune with her glockenspiel.
Even in a large venue like the Assembly Rooms, she manages to create the sense that she’s conspiring with the audience. During a stunning ‘Red Right Hand’, she whispered ‘this is a bit embarrassing – I’ve lost my glass’, before turning away to glug half a pint of wine from the bottle. Only one feature of this show could be deemed less than good: much of her priceless mid-song chatter was spoken to the audience off-mic. Though this created a warm sense of inclusion for most of the audience it left the poor guys at the very back always hearing the laugh but never catching the joke. Let’s hope she mics up in future. In the meantime, go and watch Camille O’Sullivan. And sit in the front row.