Photo – Peteris Ciemitis
Robyn Archer AO is a warm and natural performer; approachable and unpretentious. At the Arts Centre the other night she performed Que Reste T’il?, enjoying attention and loudly expressed moments of devotion from the loyal fans who have been following her for decades.
This show is a celebration of the origins of European cabaret and of Parisian café musical culture, taking her audiences on a tour of the underworld of Paris from the 1880s onwards, while avoiding cliché, and sending up the obvious along the way. Many of the songs are rarely performed, and almost never in English. The translations are Archer’s own, namely Cholera, Red City, It Takes Cash, The Paper Crisis, Trollope Rondo, Song of the Rag and Bone Man and Coin Coin Coin.
Que Reste T’il? (meaning ‘what’s left?’ from the title of Charles Trenet’s song) brought us some of the world’s best loved and lesser known French songs, presented in context. When they aren’t about the longings of love these songs are satirical, political, or tell stories of lives lived poverty, violence, addiction, and despair and even disease, for example Cholera by Aristide Bruant.
Archer included a few poems and anecdotes and The Dadaist movement of the 1920s was referenced by readings from Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia. We enjoyed a sing-along at the start to Le Chat Noir (Bruant) and another at the end where the audience joined in a lustily and very funny reworded version of classroom perennial Gentille Alouette.
Archer wasn’t at her best for the first half hour or so; her voice strained at the very low and very high notes and at the end of the show she joked about this. But once she hit her stride she was in her old form and All was Forgiven, especially when she sang Charles Aznavour’s She, delivered as a love song to her audience and one of the highlights of the night. Another was when she sang Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas, a touching and sensitive rendition, creating a beautiful moment of hush in the theatre. Other standouts were the songs Pluie and L’Etranger by Damia, a singer/songwriter who ought to be better known in the Anglais speaking world.
Archer was accompanied by Michael Morley (piano, vocals; currently Emeritus Professor of Drama at Flinders University) and George Butrumlis (accordion, founding member of the bands Zydeco Jump and Black Sorrows), the simple musical set up being perfect for the early tunes, which, when originally performed, would have had few instruments accompanying them or would have been sung a cappella on the street or in bars or cafés.
Archer performed lesser known songs of Aristide Bruant, Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Jacques Brel; when we did hear the well-known favourites they were mashed up in a medley, as with most of the songs from the 60s and 70s except Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s Bonnie and Clyde.
The strengths of this show lay in Archer’s personality, and in her giving us a sense of the ‘other’ Paris, a point made in song when we heard Cole Porter’s You Don’t Know Paree. So many of these songs aren’t familiar to audiences, especially nowadays, so the mood was one of discovery as much as of nostalgia.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents
Que Reste T’il? (What Remains?)
Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 10 – 11 Nov 2017
Bookings: 1300 182 183 | www.artscentremelbourne.com.au