Frances Ruffelle – I Say Yeh-Yeh continues at Crazy Coqs, London until 17 October.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
It’s hard to believe that 30 years have gone by since the rich, smoky voice of Frances Ruffelle’s first Eponine in Les Misérables made us weep and when she stands atop the piano at the Crazy Coqs and belts out ‘On My Own’, it is as if time has stood still.
The song that kickstarted her career naturally elicited the biggest applause among the first-nighters attending the cabaret launch of her sixth studio album I Say Yeh-Yeh, a collection of a dozen or so songs all with a French connection.
Ever since she changed her named from Ruffell to Ruffelle, people have thought the gypsy-dark Frances was at least part-French, a notion that gathers pace when you hear her flawless accent in classic material such as ‘Hymne A l’Amour’ and ‘La Foule’.
But she’s an Essex girl through and through, the daughter of famed theatre school founder Sylvia Young (and mum to recording artist Eliza Doolittle), and cultivated a love for all things French from spending as much of her youth there as she could, idolising the effortless cool of Françoise Hardy and poetic magic of Juliette Gréco.
The new CD, recorded over three days on old 1960s equipment in the windowless basement of a converted brothel in East London, features songs that evoke Ruffelle’s enduring love affair with Paris.
All tracks are arranged by her singer-songwriter pal Gwyneth Herbert who joins her on stage for a stomping ‘Yeh Yeh, the Georgie Fame hit that topped the UK charts in 1965, meshed with Brigitte Bardot’s ‘Ca Pourrait Changer’, the French version of it. Ruffelle also brings up newcomer (and former lodger) Rowan John to duet on ‘Paris Summer’, written by Lee Hazlewood for a 1972 duet with Nancy Sinatra.
She gives them what they really came for at the end with a dramatic ‘On My Own’, which she reclaims, singing it not as the innocent ingenue, but as a mature, sexy woman, and the Piaf soul-searcher ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, here delivered as ‘No Regrets’.
The whole show is superbly thought out, right from the start with the numbers scrawled on a blackboard to resemble the menu at a Paris bistro before the artist comes on in very French-looking black coat which she later unpeels to reveal black lace top and dress.
Even the band – Joe Norman on guitar, Dave Manington on bass, Ned Cartwright on keyboards and Dado Pasqualini on drums – has a French feel to it but, for those in the audience not expecting it, those just there for some entertainment after an early supper at the neighbouring Brasserie Zedel, the show might well have been a bit TOO French.
Judging from the reaction of my guest, such a large proportion of the content in a foreign language can be a turn-off, which might explain the rather perfunctory applause which greeted some of the material. And, for me, real cabaret has to be more than just an in-person CD, it is a unique art-form in which the performer makes every single member of the audience feel special.
Although Ruffelle makes superb use of every angle and elevation of the small stage, there is a self-awareness with achieving perfection that cuts out an audience which might have felt short-changed by having to stump up £30 for a show lasting a bare hour.
It could have been fleshed out, for instance, by telling them that her opening song ‘L’Un Vers L’Autre’ was specially written for her by Boublil and Schönberg, but never used in Les Mis.
Or that ‘Take the Mercedes Benz’ was her own lyric to Françoise Hardy’s ‘À Quoi Ça Sert’. Or that ‘Le Brasier’ was originally written by Ruffelle herself in English, but became a big hit in France after being translated and sung by Etienne Daho.
All that, and more, turns a performance into something more. But if it is quality rather than quantity and concert rather than cabaret you are after, this is a haunting and evocative 60 minutes from one of Britain’s true originals.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Frances Ruffelle