An evening with La Soirée

This arty, expensive circus is fun, but not that far from the bad old days of light entertainment.

Variety, as we all know, is the spice of life, and it seems our appetite for it has been pretty constant since the days of the Strong Man and the Bearded Lady. London's South Bank is currently hosting a new big top incarnation in the form of a beautiful art nouveau mirror tent, home to La Soirée's shiny sideshow collection over Christmas.

This is old tricks skilfully rebranded for a metropolitan audience that perhaps thinks itself sophisticated; too sophisticated for Gerry Cottle's Circus in Chingford, say, but willing to fork out for seats and drinks at something edgy with a French name. Many of us are guilty of peppering our prose with a bit of French to add a bit of je ne sais quoi, but it seems we also take our circuses gallicised with foreign aliases like Cirque du Soleil or La Clique.

For all La Soirée is billed as "new", it feels like a reassuring trip to Variety Villas down Memory Lane. Part of the evening's fun was working out the genealogy of the acts, the bloodlines from, amongst other things, TV shows of the 1970's like the fabulously awful Seaside Special (whose tent was courtesy of Cottle himself). There's the skit where an audience member has to find the lines for a scene on the body of the comedienne, which is pure Generation Game circa 1974. Even the male striptease routines didn't offer too much more than the Chippendales have already given us. (Mercifully, perhaps.) The acrobatic dance number round the lamppost is Gene Kelly via George Sampson off Britain's Got Talent.

Indeed the links to BGT are proudly referenced when titanic black baritone "Chocolate Gateau", winsome in feathers and lycra, lip-synchs along to Susan Boyle's first audition, before belting out his own version of "I Dreamed a Dream". Of course the great spangly prize offered to BGT contestants is the staggeringly irrelevant Royal Variety Show (perhaps the attacks on Charles and Camilla were not anti-tuition fees but anti-variety). The phrase "infinite variety" begins to sound like a depressing sentence.

Nothing new under the glitter-ball, then. But that said, La Soirée does begin to work a creeping charm. Maybe the shock of the wine prices had worn off, and the wine itself had kicked in, but by the second half I was thawing nicely to the circus shtick. The lamppost dance really is astonishingly beautiful: performer Hamish McCann actually appears to walk on air as he spins round the post horizontally, to the smoky soundtrack of Nina Simone. Frodo the double-jointed clown, in his impossibly small tennis shorts, is disarmingly goofy as he punctuates his gags and contortions with a celebratory handful of confetti.

Acrobats "The English Gents" pull off a Magritte surrealism, their supercilious pinstriped, pipe-smoking vibe at delicious odds with their extraordinary balance and strength. And mention must be made of Bath Boy, the "demigod in denim", wearing throwback jeans from the Levi's 501 adverts of the 1980's. But wet. The mix of impeccable pecs and aerial stunts (and did I mention he was wet?), which had water arcing provocatively over the ringside seats, had a large portion of the audience baying.

The South Bank has talent, all right, but as with all such things, not all talents are equal. Being super skilled with hula-hoops or sword swallowing is unlikely to cut quite the same kind of visual dash as our laving Lothario. Not all the pratfalls were properly visible in the round, and some of the comedy numbers seemed weary in comparison, our appreciation of such gags apparently having a much shorter shelf life than our appreciation of the ripped male form. And this spectator would have preferred the risks and reciprocities of live music: the tape somehow renders the whole thing karaoke-flat.

I may prefer my circuses more subversive and my cabaret more seedy, but nonetheless there is something rather wonderful about artists who have devoted their lives to perfecting something so magnificently anomalous. The price tag might disqualify La Soirée from Juvenal's cheap and cheerful bread and circuses, but it's definitely one way to warm up a cold, cold December night.

Show Hide image

On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State