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Auden, Britten, Mitchell and Ravenhill: Tell Me the Truth About Love review

Underbelly, Bristo Square

By Ben Walters

‘Where can you be?’ asks the speaker of ‘Another Tea’, a song in ‘Tell Me Truth About Love’ whose speaker is irked at his lover’s habit of talking at not with him; of uttering not conversing. We know the feeling. The playwright Mark Ravenhill and modern classical composer Conor Mitchell collaborated last year on ‘Ten Plagues’, a song cycle set in 1666 and performed to great effect by Marc Almond, notably at Wilton’s Music Hall. But a cabaret is not a song cycle, and this new collaboration, which premiered at Aldeburgh, suffers from the distinction. Words by Ravenhill and WH Auden are set to music by Mitchell and Benjamin Britten and performed by Jamie McDermott, accompanied by Peter Foggitt. The songs’ sensibilities tend towards the infatuated and unrequited, the disaffected and dejected, the narcissistic and flippant. Songs, then, about failing to connect; and songs, their frequently lovely delivery and visually imaginative staging notwithstanding, that themselves fail to connect. The unclear emotional trajectory of the set is a factor but the real issue is that a cabaret cannot fly without convincing us of two things: that the performer is expressing a sensibility in which they are personally invested, and that they are committed to communicating that sensibility to us as other individuals who find themselves in the same room at the same time. ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’ struggles on both counts: McDermott has neither a consistent persona nor an apparent facility for patter that connects audience, performer and material (the welcome comes fully halfway through the set); and while singing, as if in a recital or a musical, he mostly addresses a mysterious invisible object hovering a few feet above the audience’s head rather than the people in the room; fleeting stabs at direct engagement feel equally awkward. It’s unfair, though, to lay the blame for this misfire at McDermott’s feet. It’s not so much that he’s been miscast as that it’s a category error to cast a cabaret at all.

For more from Ben Walters in Edinburgh, follow him @not_television

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