Scott Alan and Cynthia Erivo: Home Again at the St James Studio Theatre, London, as part of the London Festival of Cabaret.
Star rating: Five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In the world of musical theatre and its cabaret sibling, we are used to describing songs and performances as ‘moving’ or ‘emotional’. All too often, though, there is an unspoken layer of artifice, an acknowledgement hanging unspoken in the air that this a performance, an act. By the end of a marathon Scott Alan set (over an hour longer than the advertised running time) with songs brought to life by the Broadway-bound Cynthia Erivo, there is no similar sense of pretence: this is raw, open, honest – often uncomfortably so.
And yet it all starts breezily enough, with Alan and Erivo riffing on one of the composer’s cheerier numbers, ‘It’s Good to See You Again’, playfully insulting each other as only good friends can. Regulars to Alan’s concerts will know that his inter-song banter has a tendency to sway towards the coarsest of blue material – and the more that Erivo delivers a fearsome stare to tell him that he has gone far enough, the more he feels compelled to push the boundaries further. Such talk is interrupted by Erivo’s sterling performance of ‘I’m a Star’ and Alan’s own rendition of ‘Again’, the first ballad of the evening and most decidedly not the last.
After a slow rendition of ‘Nothing More’, prefaced by the first of what will be a number of heartfelt and personal monologues from Alan, Erivo rejoins the stage for a fearsome rendition of ‘Home’. And that is when any semblance of structure seems to go out of the window, with Alan asking the audience to choose the next song for Erivo to sing from a list which, on the surface, seems to come as a complete surprise to her.
The chosen song, ‘Say Goodbye’, is of course delivered with characteristic passion by Erivo. Even when singing songs with which she has previously only had a passing acquaintance, she is never less than completely on point. Any slips and hesitancy are worked into the performance, the occasional flaw becoming part of the charm.
It is after the interval that the evening takes a turn from being a standard, high quality cabaret into something far more intense. Alan prefaces his performance of ‘Blessing’ with his longest monologue yet, about how the autobiographical song (about a gay man who has been rejected by his parents) came back into his life after a young fan got in touch with a story far worse than Alan’s own. Already one of the composer’s slower numbers, this live rendition slows down still further, resulting in a beautiful and haunting delivery.
Things speed up again with ‘High’, as Erivo’s comedic talents come to the fore, an interlude with guest artist (and current Memphis cast member) Tyrone Huntley singing ‘Free’, and Erivo being further cajoled into singing ‘Never Neverland’, Alan’s composition about the importance of retaining the childlike joy of Peter Pan throughout adult life.
It is a lesson worth retaining throughout the next numbers, because it is here that the evening takes a far more sombre, serious tone. Alan has always been brutally honest and open on stage, and as he says: “Some people like it, some don’t – and I’m okay with that.”
What follows is a heartfelt talk about his late partner, Kyle, who passed away suddenly due to meningitis complicated by his HIV-positive status. Talking about the song he wrote Kyle when he was first diagnosed with HIV, and the regret he felt at not feeling capable of performing it at his funeral, it leads into such a brutally raw rendition, that at times it feels Alan is not going to be able to finish. Similarly, his prompting of Erivo to talk about losing a beloved godmother results in a visceral performance of ‘Goodnight’ that has her in tears throughout – and, from the sounds of it, several audience members along with her.
By way of an encore, Alan promises a performance of ‘Anything Worth Holding On To’, the number which Erivo first performed at his 2013 London concert at which they first became good friends. But first, his tendency for long introductions is taken to extremes, as his prologue to a song about clinical depression talks in depth and at length about his own struggles with mental illness, from dealing with a family legacy of similar health problems to his own institutionalisation and several attempts at suicide, the most recent of which was earlier this year.
While Erivo’s performance of the closing number is as exemplary as one has come to expect of her, it’s the astonishing frankness of Alan’s talk which lingers in the memory. There is certainly a sense of openness, a sense that the very British tendency to not talk about such matters needs someone to go against the tide and speak out loud what remains unsaid by so many and for so long.
There is also the dread that this risks veering into exploitation of depression for its entertainment value, although this remains a quiet voice at the back of one’s head for the most part.
Mostly, it is drowned by the concern for a man who is clearly struggling, a man whose bad taste jollity at the start of the show is, as it becomes clear by the end, an act of bravado, a man who is open in saying that he is preparing for a “crash” when he returns to his native New York.
Whether or not one agrees with his use of the cabaret stage as part confessional, part therapy couch, it ensures that his and Erivo’s performances, and their emotional honesty, are quite unlike any other cabaret material one is likely to witness.
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Scott Alan reunites with Cynthia Erivo at the London Festival of Cabaret – Interview