The songs of Belgian-born chanteur Jacques Brel are renowned for their colourful imagery and dramatic storytelling. His music oozes effortless Francophone charm. Upstairs in the French Institute of Scotland, Christine Bovill and Heels Over Head Dance Theatre reinterpret his oeuvre through dance and movement.
The show is sung by Christine Bovill, whose sultry inflections suited Brel’s style perfectly. Her throatiness, in combination with her Piaf-like outrageous rolled Rs, sometimes resulted in swallowed notes and hoarseness. Again this adds to the over-arching emotion of the songs, although I fear she may not last the run. Brel’s most famous number ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ came first in the set, and she seemed to have not quite reached her stride, but by her solo ‘J’Aimais’ she had me riveted.
Joining Bovill on stage was Agathe Girard, adding a layer of interpretation through the medium of dance and physical comedy. It was the more humorous songs in which she triumphed, with the younger characters of innocent Madeleine and bored schoolgirl Rosa coming off best. Her solo number ‘Les Bourgeois’ was effective through witty repetition of actions alongside the strophic song form. However, in the more sombre songs her presence was more a distraction, with ill-conceived choreography and frankly lacklustre clarity of movement.
The music came from two top performers; Dmytro Morykit on piano and Lizy Stirrat on the accordion. Stirrat’s time to shine came as the audience filed into the space, with astonishingly fiddly flourishes as she embellished a French waltz. Morykit kept the show together, but although his fingers were as nimble as Stirrat’s, his playing occasionally seemed insensitively bashy under the singer.
It may seem logical that Brel’s work should be brought to life on stage, especially when his back catalogue of hits contains such dramatic and evocative numbers as ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ and ‘Amsterdam’. However, in this production I felt that the often basic nature of the imposed dance-drama made such a staging redundant. With a few exceptions, Girard acted out the songs word-for-word, aping a physicalised translation of the lyrics. Instead of adding new insight into well-known works, the staging merely walked us through Brel’s stories with a surface-level interpretation. All in all, I left in a merry mood, waving my little Belgian flag and determined to Spotify Jacques Brel.