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Jacques Brel – A Life a Thousand Times | Review

Jacques Brel : A Life a Thousand TimesIt’s some distance from mainstream chart music, but then Jacques Brel (1929-1978) wasn’t trying to be a big commercial success, or so Jacques Brel: A Life A Thousand Times would have its audiences believe. Brel is one of those musicians that one doesn’t think one has come across before, until the show gradually reveals some of his back catalogue. Most notable were ‘Amsterdam’, made famous in the English language by David Bowie (1947-2016), and ‘Seasons in the Sun’, a cover version of which was Christmas number one in the UK in 1999, though the English version appears to be an adaptation rather than a translation. The more literal rendering given in this production made a lot more sense to me than the one that can still be heard occasionally on the radio.

There was the odd song performed entirely in French, without surtitles, and listening to these tracks (or, to be more precise, trying to listen to them), I could deduce the emotions of the song, much as one can sense anger or delight, for instance, in an opera number sung in its original Italian. At least the songs aren’t being enjoyed by proxy, as it were. I trust you will understand that I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of translations provided in this production, or indeed the precision of the French pronunciation. What I will say is that this Brel (Simon Pennicott) wasn’t always the tour de force singer that the real one was (there are videos on YouTube of Brel’s performances), sometimes doing, as his second daughter (of three) France (Kate-Lois Elliott) pointed out, multiple live shows every day.

“A man’s life cannot be reduced to a few lines,” France, also the show’s narrator, muses. (Nor indeed, can a woman’s – one national newspaper’s obituary of Aretha Franklin earlier this year was easily in excess of 3,000 words.) Even so, the show itself rattles on a little too long, and could do with some trimming – the last few scenes seem particularly drawn out, though I take the point that there is a legacy to be explored as well as a life lived. This is something of a docu-drama rather than a tragedy play, so the curtain need not necessarily fall as Brel passes. But I wonder if the ending could be a tad more celebratory, in keeping with Brel’s desire to throw caution to the wind and take risks in life.

The show highlights the breadth and depth of Brel’s writing – the musical numbers (if I can call them that) range from the boisterous to the reflective, and back again. There’s a mixture of backing tracks and actor-musicianship; more of the latter would help to create the sort of acoustic atmosphere of Brel’s concert tours. Portrayed in this production, Brel comes across as a complex character, being grateful for a ‘gloomy’ childhood, presumably as it gave him something to write songs about.

This isn’t, thankfully, a show that glosses over aspects of Brel’s life that were less than exemplary; time and again, the cost of fame and fortune on his family life was explored. If he was a father figure to many a songwriter, he was somewhat less so to his own daughters. Some other details given about his life come across as a little superfluous, but it contributes to a comprehensive story. His seeming bewilderment at being the recipient of miscellaneous awards and trophies for writing songs, asking about people in other professions who work longer hours than he does for less money, contrasts with the relative vanity evident in public life today. His attitude towards women, meanwhile, is of its time, and the production, I think, has made the right decision to keep in the show what are, by contemporary standards, downright unacceptable views.

The show’s programme itself makes clear this production is not ‘the finished product’, and as the production seems to be aware of its own shortcomings, little is to be gained by listing them here. The second half is more engaging than the first (which is fine, given that if it were the other way around it would be rather disappointing) and, as it is, it’s a well-researched and intriguing production.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Far West Theatre are delighted to bring their much-acclaimed celebration of Jacques Brel for its London
Premiere in September 2018. The seminal musical biography of the great Belgian writer and performer
incorporates his world-famous songs, interspersed with his philosophy on love and life with his story narrated
through the words of his daughter, France.

Jacques Brel: A Life a Thousand Times
Director Linnie Reedman
Cast Simon Pennicott
Kate-Lois Elliot
Producer Far West Theatre
Performance Dates September 25th 2018 – October 7th 2018

Tuesday – Sunday, 7.30pm
matinees Saturday & Sunday, 2.30pm (Oct 6th– 7th) & 4pm (Sept 29th– 30th)

Running Time 90 mins
Venue Mirth, Marvel and Maud, 186 Hoe St, Walthamstow, London E17 4QH


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