The songs of Jacques Brel demand not just technical musical virtuosity but a spectrum of passionate emotional expression, from vulnerability to disdain to joie de vivre.
Peter Straker Sings Brel, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) ****
Few performers today can meet those demands with the accomplishment and verve of Peter Straker, a phenomenal presence whose electrifying delivery belies the fact that he this year celebrates 50 years in showbusiness.
Straker is no stranger to Brel, having worked with the Belgian master’s chansons for decades.
But this pared-back set, accompanied by the excellent Gulliver Ralston on what Straker calls a “postage-stamp stage,” offers a tremendous opportunity to see him work his magic at close quarters.
The enveloping opening number, No, Love You’re Not Alone, begins in darkness, Straker’s hands outstretched to establish contact.
As the show continues, Charlie Paton’s effectively simple lighting casts coloured washes to suit Brel’s dramatic, compulsive and heightened world.
Amsterdam, for instance, is a lusty red to suit Straker’s rowdy, sinuous and charismatic storytelling, while the gently poignant Sons Of is bathed in a melancholic blue-green.
The emotional range is dazzling: one minute, Straker brings out the insecure sexuality and resentment of Next, Brel’s grotesque tale of lost virginity; then the giddy torment of Mathilde, about a lover’s return; then the scabrous social satire of The Middle Class, performed as a cartoonish duet with Ralston whose bravura climax threatens to engulf the whole venue.
Indeed, alongside his extraordinary voice and emotional heft, Straker consistently thrills with his physicality, flailing his limbs, flashing his arse and marauding among the audience, eyes darting, voice defiant.
From the plaintive heartbreak of If You Go Away to the foot-stomping bravado of Jacky, Straker brings Brel’s world of lust, fear, tragedy and celebration to glorious, rapturous life.
• Until 12 August, 9:20pm