Theatre review: Valerie, Summerhall

Cherie Moore helps Robin Kelly untangle his family tree. Picture: Contributed
Cherie Moore helps Robin Kelly untangle his family tree. Picture: Contributed
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With the poise and power of a 1950s screen legend, Cherie Moore is blasting out a song, accompanied by her two-man live band, to such an extent that it feels like it’s going to burst through the walls and bring down Summerhall’s ceiling. Meanwhile, the audience is still traipsing in. The show hasn’t even started yet.

Valerie, Summerhall (Venue 26) ****

However, the mood of a late night cabaret show suddenly changes, as writer/composer Robin Kelly steps out from behind his keyboard and starts talking about genetics. This isn’t an evening of friendly chat and big tunes (although it has got those too), but a rock ‘n’ roll ride through fate, family history, mental illness and free will.

Is who we are simply a product of our DNA, Robin asks, before a quick-fire charting of his family tree leads into the story of his grandmother, Valerie, and her relationship with her increasingly volatile husband. Key episodes are played out through towering musical numbers – thrash metal, Debbie Harry style rap and everything in-between – accompanied by the heart-lifting riffs of electric guitar and ever-present beats of the thunderous drums.

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The scale of the breath-taking songs – and Moore’s stunning voice – is matched by the epic quality of the story: one which might be based on a personal tale, but that also explores the oldest of dramatic conflicts: are we free to be who we want, or are our destinies set in stone – or, in this instance, the genome?

When the pulsating energy of the piece seemingly exhausts itself, Robin is left alone to tell his story, it’s a poignant moment as we learn what one man has lived with and perhaps, with the help of his fellow performers, overcome in order to make the brilliant show in front of us this evening.

• Until 26 August, 9:15pm