The Song Project review – five playwrights, one compelling voice

I often wish I had been in Paris in the 50s when the great French singer-songwriter Barbara was performing. Now I feel better about the lack. I was at the Royal Court when Wende sang.

The singer and composer – Dutch, though born in Beckenham – has a voice that curls into corners, bangs against the back wall, rasps and sweetens. It can drop to the blues, lift up freshly, speak levelly. Wende seems to be singing not about herself but about things she has felt or seen. As have you. The experiences hang in the air between stage and audience.

At the Court she is delivering other women’s words, though you might think she made them herself. The Song Project, conceived by Wende and the designer Chloe Lamford in collaboration with composer Isobel Waller-Bridge and choreographer Imogen Knight, brings together the lyrics of five playwrights. EV Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson were asked to contribute, to turn from the spoken word on the basis that “some things can only be sung”.

Surprisingly, in this theatre of new writing, it is performance rather than words that binds the evening. There are striking single lines – “I only stick my head out when it rains” (Stevenson); “I like black water” (Crowe) – but the moods (often dark but fiery) and dilemmas (there is a recurring question about whether to be or not to be a mother) drift rather than develop, evoke rather than describe. A more driving, particular line may appear when the show is staged downstairs next year.

Meanwhile, Wende, accompanied by cello, drums and keyboard, sometimes ticking like pulse or heartbeat, prowls on a small stage surrounded by ferns and – a feminist joke? – the plant usually known as mother-in-law’s tongue. Already compelling, The Song Project is on the brink of becoming explosive, unmissable.

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