Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Month: January 2016

Review: Piaf! The Show

The Times

29 January 2016

Edith Piaf

Piaf! The Show

Four Stars

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wednesday 27 January, part of Celtic Connections

There’s a growing back catalogue of tributes to the pocket-sized chanteuse, Edith Piaf. The combination of her school of hard knocks childhood, followed by a string of turbulent love affairs, then a substance abuse problem – it’s the stuff that Hollywood biopic dreams are made of. Tragedy seemed to trail after the French cabaret singer, but like fellow divas Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Etta James, whose personal lives were also hamstrung by addiction and heartache, Piaf wouldn’t have enduring appeal if she didn’t have the voice to back up the tabloid-pleasing headlines.

Piaf’s voice could be many things – gravelly and defiant, creamy and suave, featherlight and vulnerable – she could sound like an angry barfly on a three-day hangover, or a jilted and unhinged lover about to do herself a mischief.

Various homages have been paid to the artist formerly known as “The Sparrow”, including Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Piaf in La Vie En Rose in 2007, or Pam Gem’s regularly revisited seventies stage play, Piaf. They chose, as did various biographies, Edinburgh Fringe shows and TV documentaries, to zoom in on the grittier side of Piaf’s private life, but this French production wants to keep the focus pretty firmly on her songs.

Piaf! The Show is performed almost entirely in the singer’s native French. Besides the odd “thank you”, and a verse of Autumn Leaves in English, the jazz standard written by Johnny Mercer and based on Jacques Prévert’s original song Les Feuilles Mortes, it’s the only break from Piaf’s mother tongue. Even the interval here is the ‘entracte’, and when an audience karaoke moment is slotted in for La Vie En Rose near the end, it quickly becomes obvious who was paying attention in French lessons at school.

The audience watch various black and white film reels unfolding in the background, showing Rue Pigalle and Montmartre’s fabled cobbled streets, then a montage of Piaf’s various love interests and front page splashes as she exploded in popularity during the 1940s and fifties.  

Besides the visuals, there is no narrative per se, and for the most part, non French speakers in the crowd have to rely on the same clues as silent movie or old fashioned opera fans to follow the meaning of the songs, reading the overwrought facial expressions and stage props to get the gist. Piaf’s are some very big tiny shoes to fill, but singer Anne Carrere rises to the challenge, coming very close to nailing pretty much every aspect of the singer’s voice and mannerisms, besides maybe her trademark overly-pruned eyebrows.

If Carrere and her four-piece band (double bass, xylophone, accordion and piano) have performed this show over a hundred times in 23 countries before giving it its UK premiere in Glasgow tonight, they show no signs of wearying. Carrere’s arms slice through the air in indignation, her legs drape flirtatiously over male props in the front row, and her ballerina slip-ons pirouette her through lilting numbers about merry-go-rounds and circus acts. No r goes unrolled, no ‘bof’ is left unpouted, and every shrug, grimace and furrowed brow comes on cue, helping to tell the stories of all of Piaf’s embittered barmaids, pining lovers and doomed legionnaires (Piaf’s hit Mon Legionnaire went on to be a gay disco anthem in the eighties, after Serge Gainsbourg recorded it and added new connotations.)

Je M’En Fous Pas Mal and Mon Manège A Moi are gutsy highlights, but the show is not over until the tiny lady sings Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and sing it Carrere does. Belting it out, tears can be seen springing involuntarily from eyes all over the crowd, and Carrere can’t resist camply hamming it up with some pained sobs of her own, before wiping her eyes on the hem of the piano player’s jacket.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


Review: The Wainwright Sisters

The Times

27 January 2016

Night-time melodies for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys from The Wainwright Sisters

The Wainwright Sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Roche

The Wainwright Sisters
Four Stars
City Halls, Glasgow, Monday 25 January, part of Celtic Connections

Side by side onstage in matching striped pinafores over skinny jeans, the sisters Martha and Lucy sheepishly introduce themselves. Martha apologises for their dorky “uniforms”, explaining that their brother, the baroque pop singer turned opera composer, Rufus Wainwright delights in finding them the ugliest stage outfits to wear. Taking their acoustic guitars as they start tuning for the first song, Martha mumbled another disclaimer, “We don’t know any of these songs.”

“We don’t know each other,” chimed in Lucy, barely raising her head, or her voice.

The stream of self-effacing caveats continues through the show, drily lowering the audience’s expectations with a mix of faux mortification and ham-amateurism. In reality, their sorry shtick not only works well as a deft crowd-warmer, it turns out to be completely unnecessary too.

Lucy Wainwright Roche’s appearance ends up seeming like a bonus, after Celtic Connections festival had announced the day before that she would have to cancel, after snowstorms in New York meant she couldn’t leave the city.

Like a twisted and dark update on 1950s sister act Patience and Prudence, or a gently demented variation on the Swedish singers First Aid Kit, the Wainwright Sisters’ double act chews up country, blues, folk and lounge references, sweetly spitting them out as glorious harmonies. The pair are a product of a sort of musical super-family; both sharing the same father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. Like him, the half sisters prefer the warts-and-all, gallows humour end of the folky singer-songwriter spectrum, and have produced what they call their collection of “terribly morbid lullabies”.

Lucy Wainwright Roche has obviously inherited her mum’s knack for a girl group harmony – Suzzy Roche has performed with her sisters as The Roches since the seventies, and recently toured the UK, singing with her daughter. Martha Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian folk singer, also performed with her sister, Anna McGarrigle, so for Martha and Lucy, although they hadn’t performed together until a couple of years ago, it’s as if the songwriting was always on the wall.

Tonight’s set is made up of tracks from last year’s duet album Songs in the Dark, as well as solo slots of original songs from each singer. The theme for the album was the lullaby, although in their version, the night-time melodies are for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys, as well as one they describe as “a hostile baby rocking song”, for when a child won’t stop howling in the night and “you want to punch the baby in the mouth.”

Martha’s vocal is a gymnastic, theatrical thing; keening and warbling with wonderful reedy, raspy flourishes, while Lucy’s stays straighter and truer; a warm and crystalline counter to her sister’s, dovetailing in and around Martha’s Kate Bush wails or Dolly Parton quirks.

Flitting from the campfire to the cabaret bar, the double act have been told that tonight is Robert Burn’s Night, so Martha turned to the work of traditional Scots singer and folk archivist, Ewan MacColl for inspiration and found his 1959 version of Burns’ Ay Waukin O’ for them to cover. Their a cappella tribute is an eerie, haunting highlight, as is their unexpected cover of pan pipe favourite, El Condor Pasa, and their father’s Lullaby, a gentle, folky exercise in acerbic self-loathing.

Martha, who gave a few spoilers to her true feelings about her dad in her 2004 EP, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, seems to have mellowed since then, but can’t resist some snark when she points out nonchalantly that his lullaby was all about himself.

A bit like Martha’s own scene-stealing cameo alongside Frances McDormand in HBO’s miniseries Olive Kitteridge, where Wainwright played an ageing barroom piano player, the Wainwright Sisters are full of surprises. Comforting and creepy ones. Despite their gauche protests about being uncomfortable and unprepared up onstage, they are clearly neither, and the Glasgow crowd lets them know it.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


Review: The Songs of Ivor Cutler

The Times
25 January 2016

Black and white portrait of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler

The Songs of Ivor Cutler

with Duglas T. Stewart, Aidan Moffat and The Glad Community Choir
Four Stars
The Glad Café, Glasgow, Friday 22 January, part of Celtic Connections

Appropriately, tonight’s tribute to the outsider poet and surreal songwriter, Ivor Cutler, ends with a greeting. A jaunty version of “Good morning! How are you? Shut up!”, accompanied by a brusquely perky piano closes the show. With it, the ghost of Mr Cutler seems to usher his fans out the Glad Café with an affectionate shove, before there is time for anything resembling fawning or gushing.

The nonsense-peddling sprite was born in Glasgow, close to Ibrox stadium, ninety years ago. After dabbling in the RAF, primary school teaching and studying at Glasgow School of Art, Cutler began recording his own ‘never knowingly understood’ stories in the 1950s, which led to regular performances on BBC Radio. He went on to release 12 albums and scores of books of weird poetry, absurd prose and Lear-like fiction for children. He also caught the attention of Paul McCartney, John Peel and Robert Wyatt, and worked with them all.  

This year marks the tenth anniversary of his death, and loyal fan Duglas T. Stewart, frontman of jangly guitar pop band BMX Bandits, assembles friends for an homage evening as part of Celtic Connections folk and world music festival, stitching Cutler’s eccentric songs around poetry readings and projections. Among the visuals is a sign for the Noise Abatement Society, encouraging the audience to show moderation in their appreciation; a nod to Cutler who was a lifelong member of the NAS. While playfully stubborn in many ways, he was genuinely sensitive to loud noise, and asked his crowds to applaud at half volume. Possibly less genuinely, when he toured as a musician, his rider reputedly insisted on a two-bar electric fire to heat him up backstage.

Warm compère Stewart and fellow fan Aidan Moffat choose to focus on very different trademarks of Cutler’s work. Stewart, who has performed in tribute shows to his musical heroes in the past, including Serge Gainsbourg, Ennio Morricone and Brian Wilson, picks cover versions that hold a candle up to Cutler’s romantic side. While Cutler’s underplayed poignancy is one of his most devastating skills – generally managing to convey his heartfelt tenderness in the most brutish and insulting ways – Stewart’s delivery seems perhaps too earnest, too tuneful, even on songs about insects and death. He admits he’s hesitant about imitating Cutler’s recognisable thick, plaintive Glaswegian brogue though, sticking to his own melodic singing voice on the likes of the excellent ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean’, reserving a couple of very competent impersonations for the storytelling bits in between songs. In one he recalls meeting Cutler in Virgin Megastore on Glasgow’s Argyle Street, and showing him a poetry zine he’d written with Norman Blake.

By contrast, spoken word artist Moffat, and former member of Arab Strap, homes in expertly on “the racy bits”, treating the crowd to choice readings of stories from 1990’s Glasgow Dreamer, where Cutler tells tales of a “fifty-foot cock” and run-ins with an ex. “You say predictable, I prefer ‘reliable’,” deadpans Moffat, himself no stranger to a puerile or daft confessional. Following on from Moffat’s readings of Cutler’s mutated lullabies and botched suicide attempts, a 20-strong team from the Glad Community Choir huddle on the stage for their grandiose, yet poker-faced reimaginings of ‘There’s a Turtle in My Soup’ and ‘Muscular Tree’.

The magnificent, casually urgent rally cry, ‘Women of The World’ from Cutler’s 1983 album Privilege gets an outing, with an apology to the great man, who apparently hated Jim O’Rourke’s subsequent cover version of it, which the choir have taken inspiration from tonight. ‘Beautiful Cosmos’, the inspiration for the title of National Theatre of Scotland’s 2014 play about the cult songwriter comes as a late highlight to the evening, before ‘I Worn My Elbows’, another dazzling example of Cutler’s ridiculous take on the love paean.

Celtic Connections runs until January 31.

Read online at The Times here (subscription needed).

© 2018 Claire Sawers

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑