Come Together – Barb Jungr and John McDaniel – continues at the St James Theatre Studio, London until 29 November.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
If there were a London cabaret theatre crown, it would rest on Barb Jungr’s head. Her reputation for giving great performances and interpretation of songbooks that are not typical cabaret fare means that the news that she had set her sights on the Beatles’ back catalogue should, in itself, make this show an essential ticket. Tie that in with her joining forces with Emmy Award-winning American cabaret performer John McDaniel (here making his London debut) and expectations are sky high before a note has been sung.
And how well they are met. After pianist McDaniel plays the familiar chorus of ‘Let It Be’, the duo let rip into the first full song, ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’. Jungr can really work a room, and here she ensures that she makes eye contact with every member of her audience, willing them to believe that she is singing the song to them. Coupled with her cheeky reminiscences about growing up in Stockport at the height of Beatlemania, within minutes she has convinced the entire room that we are all friends, celebrating Lennon and McCartney’s back catalogue together.
Having songs originally written for guitars, whether electric or acoustic, on piano alone allows the storytelling of the original lyric to fly, especially in some of the Beatles’ less-performed numbers such as ‘Things We Said Today’. But the emotion wrung from those – backed up by Jung’s refusal to ever hold back in the physicality she delivers in each song – is eclipsed by a performance of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that wrings out the soul. Slow, mournful and emotional, Jungr and McDaniel take the familiar story and turn a sad song into a heartbreaking story.
But Act I is much more focused on the Beatles’ love songs, from McDaniel’s sweet interpretation of ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ to a medley of ‘I Love Her’ (which Jungr switches to ‘I Love Him’), ‘All My Loving’ and ‘All You Need is Love’. But lest things get too comfy, a rendition of ‘It’s Getting Better’ – complete with Lennon’s lyrics confessing to a past of being physically violent towards his partners – shows that the Lennon/McCartney pairing worked primarily because of the tensions between Paul’s lyrical romanticism and John’s pricklier edge.
Opening Act II with ‘Hello Goodbye’, the set list takes a small diversion from the Beatles’ back catalogue with two songs that Lennon and McCartney wrote for Cilla Black. ‘It’s For You’ has a breezy, Cole Porter-ish vibe in Jungr and McDaniel’s hands, while ‘Step Inside Love’ is so well known that the pair wisely keep it close to the original.
McDaniel doesn’t get many solo spots in the show, but his Act II performance of the George Harrison-authored ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is moving, perfectly rendered on piano and feels contemporary both in songwriting and in relevance to today’s world. It is the highlight of an act that has many high points and no low ones. Renditions of Harrison’s ’Something’, which segues into ‘The Long and Winding Road’, keep the mood contemplative, although the latter benefits additionally from one of Jungr’s frequent bouts of percussive foot-stamping, adding a very human drumbeat to accompany McDaniel’s piano playing.
Leaving the show’s title song, ‘Come Together’, until the end, Jungr and McDaniel are happy to rock out, having fun with the song’s psychedelically nonsensical lyrics, then finishing with an encore performance of ‘In My Life’.
The end result of this show is one that cements Lennon and McCartney – and, indeed, Harrison – firmly in the progression of popular music. The stripped-back approach exposes the influences of earlier songwriters on The Beatles, and reminds us of how today’s composers, such as Adele, are sitting on the shoulders of Scouse giants.
This run of concerts is criminally short, concluding on Sunday. But on the evidence of their first night, it is a cabaret set that has a significant life in it, and will hopefully return soon.