Britain has its ‘Fanfare for Europe.’ The EU sings along to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. No wonder artists are attempting to address continental rifts in song. Where there is discord, the Fringe is bringing the harmonies.
Jonny Woo is singing both sides of the Brexit debate in his All Star Brexit Cabaret (3 stars) – a cheerful evening you might call The Gay Boys of Brexit. Striding out in a glittering gold and blue jumpsuit, a circle of stars around his neck, Woo welcomes all comers and spoofs both ‘camps’ equally. (If he leans towards Leavers, it’s 52-48.) His Brexiteers are backwards, pining for Woolworths and worrying about Poles. His Remainers are hipsters with Eastern European cleaners, fearful for the future of Pret A Manger.
Conceived as a narrative musical, this chatty cabaret loosely retells the “fairytale” of the 2016 referendum with Woo and co. going after the obvious gags. None of the major players is spared. Soprano Sooz Kempner finds David Cameron cowering in Downing Street, the little piggy who went to the polls, while Jayde Adams gives us Boris the Clown, albeit with hints of racist club comic Roy Chubby Brown. At one point, she lets rip a dog-whistle squeal.
The satire mostly sticks to the surface. 'The Great Television Debate' becomes an insult-slinging stand-off that makes cunts of us all, while Woo’s ‘Leavers’ Lullaby’, dedicated to his dad, offers comforting tones to “simple swivel-eyed loons”. Jerry Springer composer Richard Thomas’s music finds subtler notes: menacing musical undertones clash with breezy, blinkered melodies. One number even channels the hippies of Hair, while Nigel Farage—a subversive cameo from Le Gateau Chocolat—gets a rabble-rousing number based on that old whoop-inducer 'Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat'. Every song has a certain naivety, which pretty much sums up the state of the debate.
A cheerful, diverting hour—some solace in the midst of the Brexit melee—it stops a long way short of the best satire. Skimming the biggest shitshow in 50 years for lolz, it misses the boiling fury beneath. Without it, Woo’s cabaret can’t come close to catharsis.
Big in Belgium has gone big on Brexit this year. Frustrated by the limits of Belgium’s pop scene—blame “Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony”—musical comedian Nele Van den Broeck ups sticks for Britain in Nele Needs a Holiday: The Musical (3 stars). She winds up in what might as well be another world: exorbitant rents, extortionate managers and artist flatmates funded by ma and pa. Crouched in child’s pose in her broom cupboard bedroom, she becomes “a lonely flexworker a long way from home.”
A loosely strung musical ribbing London life, it's endearingly silly but altogether featherweight. In her silver spanglesuit, Van den Broeck comes off like Camille O’Sullivan’s goofy little sister, and her wit-sprinkled songs can’t hold a candle to musical comedy’s best.
Marieke Dermul wants to write a new song for Europe – a catchy European Citizen Popsong (2 stars) that combines diverse musical cultures into an anthem for EU-nity. That task takes her city-hopping around the continent armed with a camera, meeting euroscpetics in Italy and anarchists in Greece. The project’s a proxy: an excuse to open people up about Europe and the EU. A Kiev-based flautist talks of it as a promised land. A punk band in Berlin disavows borders altogether.
Even as she forms a band in the room, Dermul doesn’t take her European inquiry or her musical endeavour nearly seriously enough to make us invest. Without interrogating the way music brings people together—and her beloved Eurovision Song Contest rather suggests otherwise—Dermul’s content to offer something closer to spoof. “Are we Europe?” she sings in the streets of Kiev, as Ukranian policemen look on nonplussed. “Yes, we are.”
Dermul’s no David Hasselhoff, in other words. Fallen Fruit (2 stars), from Two Destination Language, finds the Baywatch star on his crane, belting out 'Looking for Freedom' to bring the Berlin Wall down. Katerina Radeva’s look back at her childhood in Bulgaria offers a glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain, asking whether the chaos of its collapse was worth the gains that came with communism. For a while, her family survived on lard but, on the plus side, there’s a Costa now.
Erecting a wall of cardboard building blocks, Radeva remembers a childhood where “everything was red” and on-message television game shows dished out party memberships as prizes. It’s a young artist’s piece, eight years old now, and while walled borders in Eastern Europe add fresh resonance, there’s none of the structural elegance or emotional impact of Two Destination Language at its best.