Jacques Brel sang of the ecstasy of love and the prospect of death – often in the same song. Like Tom Waits, he is a songwriter’s songwriter, who’s been covered by the likes of Nick Cave, Bowie and Sinatra.

The beauty of Chansons de Jacques Brel is that although it is performed in French, you don’t need to speak French to enjoy it. This is thanks to John Waters’ spirited delivery, the backstory he provides for each song, and his English translations of Brel’s sublime poetic lyrics, along with the moods conveyed by the songs’ arrangements.

The cleverly structured cabaret show has songs about Brel’s privileged but strict childhood, in “La Chanson de Jacky” and “Mon Enfance”, as well as more worldly topics. The latter include PTSD suffered by a man who slept with a prostitute in a mobile brothel in the army (“Au Suivant” / “Next”); drunken, brawling sailors on shore leave (“Amsterdam”), and a meet-and-greet with the grim reaper (“J’arrive”).

Waters inhabits the role of Brel. He rolls his Rs, his accent sounds authentic, and he doesn’t break character. It’s almost a surprise when he’s introduced as John Waters. He performs each song effectively and with conviction. However, as many of the songs reach a shouty crescendo in a similar way, it would be good to hear more vocal light and shade. It would also be pleasing to hear Brel’s “Le Moribund”, which contains his best-known melody and which Terry Jacks turned into the hit “Seasons in the Sun”.

Walters’ long-term accompanist, Stewart D’Arrietta, also becomes transformed by the music. His amazing piano and keyboard arrangements are like musical kaleidoscopes, and as he plays, his body movements suggest he and the music become one.

The other two band members are accordionist Michael Kluger and former Sherbet bass player Tony Mitchell (himself no slouch in the songsmith game, having co-written Sherbet’s chart-topping “Howzat”).

Highlights of the quality show are the happy, bouncy “Mathilde” and the poignant “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”).

Chansons de Jacques Brel is in The Garage International until February 27.

 Read more 2022 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews here.

Make a comment View comment guidelines

Increase your impact by having your donations doubled

When you commit to a regular weekly, fortnightly or monthly tax-deductible donation to InReview, each scheduled donation will be matched by Creative Partnerships Australia. That means you’re supporting twice as many InReview stories to be commissioned, edited and published.

Donate Here

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.