“This is not how my story goes,” says 19th century peasant-turned-courtesan Marie Dupleiss.
The muse for Alexandre Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias and the subsequent inspiration for a swathe of legends and myths (including the opera La Traviata and Moulin Rouge) is a woman whose legacy has endured for centuries – but she’s not done yet.
It’s January 15th 1847 and in 18 days’ time Dupleiss will die of tuberculosis but before she goes she insists on one last romp through the ages, determined to burst the bubble that has elevated to her to mythic proportions, and stride forth in all the glory of her own pink champagne fabulousness.
Written and performed by Sheridan Harbridge, Songs for the Fallen is an almost perfectly timed hour-long extravaganza where cabaret-meets-baroque-meets-MTV accompanied by musical narrative, superbly orchestrated by musical director, composer and sound designer Basil Hogios. It’s a parody that invokes all the essential elements of cabaret: vaudeville, erotica, satire, humour and, most importantly, Harbridge has the voice to pull it off.
She is ably assisted by Simon Corfield and Gareth Holcombe and together the trio trip through the ages offering glimpses into the lovers and loneliness that this young woman encountered in the torrid environment of Paris in the mid-1800s.
Director Shane Anthony has crafted a highly aesthetic production that teases as much as it interrogates, and with a compelling blend of personal narrative and swagger there are some excellent moments where it mocks contemporary fetishisation of woman and the myth-making machine. But it could go a little further. Familiar gags and rude gestures are all delightful but they occasionally lack the punches, and the pauses, to really allow the moment to settle.
The exception is when Harbridge has her solos which are exquisite in both delivery and pathos, and allow the story to offer more than the short relief of a quick turning paperback penny thriller. The final scenes are powerful and the story becomes just that bit more than entertainment at the fame and fortunes of another ‘poor’ girl – it potentially opens the space to have a bigger, and potentially new, conversation.
Alexander Berlage’s lighting design beautifully illuminates this Parisian boudoir and Michael Hankin has created the perfect set that is functional with all the necessary frills. Lisa Mimmochi’s costume design is both saucy and classy and all elements work for the most part well together.
The Town Hall Concert Chamber isn’t necessarily the ideal space, especially as cabaret offers more holes in the fourth wall than Dupleiss’ lovers and the cramped tables offer restricted views – but those minor quibbles don’t take away from the enduring and remarkable story of a woman by the name of Marie Dupleiss.