FAIRY POWERED PRODUCTIONS ★ ★ ★ ★
The cosily intimate Crazy Coqs, located on the edge of Soho, with its glitzy interior hinting of art deco, feels like the perfect venue for staging the wistfully reflective “Soho Songs” – an exciting new song cycle in progress, highlighting the lives of people who inhabit the area, its character and how its changing.
In the way that the name Hollywood implies so much more than a neighbourhood of LA, to most Brits, Soho is not so much a dream factory as redolent of every kind of off duty distraction on offer, along with a smorgasbord of seamier pleasures to sample. Songwriters Barb Jungr and Mike Lindup (Level 42) have cleverly composed musical snapshots of Soho life around a typical day in the Shangri-La, a single public house struggling to stay open, and whose ever shifting clientele from dawn to dusk provide the subject matter for the songs It’s a brilliant concept and one that should have legs.
The songs were performed with considerable style and gusto by 5 exceptional vocalists in a variety of formations – 2 women (Emma Salvo and Hannah Nuttall) and 3 men (Will de Renzy Martin, James Gulliford and Stephen Lambert), each having their moment out front. They were backed by the very accomplished trio of Mike Webborn (piano and musical director), Doug Brennan (bass) and Jonathan Lee (drums).
The musical performance alone was worthy of 5*, but as a cohesive show, it is probably still not quite fully realised. It is a work in progress after all. In some ways, it felt too intense – you’ve barely finished digesting the import of one song when you’re onto the next. Having said that, appetite whetted, I also felt hungry for more. I hope there is scope for one or two more songs and also some opportunity to reprise some of the musical themes. There is no between songs chat – the director makes use of fairly short audio clips with thoughts and experiences of (presumably genuine) Soho characters. Whilst this seemed a touch clunky at times, Benji Sperring’s direction is otherwise suitably understated with, I think some limited use of costume, and some well judged, subtle in character acting by the vocalists.
The song cycle itself is clearly the work of a master craftsman/woman. Every song is lyrically rich and smart, laced with wry humour (reminiscent of Clive James’ work long ago with Pete Atkin). For this reason, I would hope that in future, audience members can get access to a lyric sheet. Why hide such craft away? The arrangements are excellent – superbly imaginative and well executed and the song cycle covers a breadth of musical styles and tempos that render every song fresh and helps build engagement throughout the show..
For me, the standout song of the evening was the beautiful, melancholic “Your Heart in My Hand” performed immaculately by Will de Renzy Martin. It has the air of a future songbook standard about it. A number of other songs are candidates to be audience favourites and some, potential hits. The witty, semi spoken “Estate Agent” would likely resonate with many. I loved the US parade ground call and response swing of the pit musician song, the immediately catchy disco beat of “Nice Girls Shouldn’t Go to Soho” and the funky boogie of the formidable “Bouncer Man”. “Kit on, Kit off” has some delightful melodic variations and the Shangri-La landlady’s “Every Kind of Blue” is wonderfully world weary. Following the love torn “Heart in my Hand”, the song cycle ends with the harmony rich, deep nostalgia of “Dreaming of Soho”.
Even as a work in progress, Soho Songs is simply 75 minutes of incredible music and more importantly, superb, satisfying entertainment. Thoroughly recommended.
Review by Phil Brown