The Last Drink at the Phoenix Artist Club, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
This surprisingly capacious space tucked away at the far end of a well upholstered bar was an ideal venue for this evening of drinking songs, drawn from the cornucopia of cabaret and music theatre repertoire harking back to the days of the Weimar Republic in Berlin.
The decadent air associated with that time was echoed in the ambiguous sexual innuendo running through many of the songs with the blatant references to casual encounters with either sex. The early start – 6.30pm – didn’t preclude strong adult language either, but such was the variety of song and poetry readings in the relatively short, meticulously planned programme, yet cannily delivered off the cuff, and the hour passed by in a flash.
William Ludwig had recently given his show in a run of performances at the Ruhr Festival where the largely German-speaking audience would have appreciated his idiomatic command of their language in the songs from the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht shows Happy End and The Threepenny Opera.
These early examples of the genre had lost none of their potency as they fell on our newly minted ears in his searing interpretations.
It was a clever move to widen the theme’s perspective to include the recent ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’, self-indulgences of a softer kind for singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, as well as ‘The Coffee Song’ (subtitled ‘There’s An Awful lot of Coffee in Brazil’), sung in German, that was a hit for Frank Sinatra back in 1946.
The image of the lone drinker was portrayed in Jacque Brel’s ‘L’Ivrogne’, as well as that bar ballad ‘One For My Baby’ with its plea: ‘you simply gotta listen to me/’Till it’s all talked away’. Ludwig captured the wee small hours mood to perfection, aided and abetted by fine pianist Dean Austin who, great extemporiser though he is, wisely stuck to the arrangement which many of the audience will have been familiar with (from the album Only the Lonely, Sinatra again).
Johnny Mercer was the lyricist too of ‘Drinking Again’, and Ludwig also included Joni Mitchell’s 1971 widely-admired album track ‘A Case of You’, as well as the more recent ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (Human League).
‘Make It Another Old-Fashioned Please’ was a natural for inclusion, a song for the cocktail hour by Cole Porter for Ethel Merman that Ludwig made all his own. There was also Sondheim’s ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from Company, where the singer offered his tipsy toast to Mahler, the composer who was all the rage in 1970s New York thanks to the championship of Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic.
Like Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, the tricky accompaniment was played in exemplary fashion by pianist Austin, of whom Ludwig was deeply appreciative.
Never one to just give us the notes on the paper, but always capturing the spirit of the song, his jazz-tinged keyboard stylings added a musical sheen to this very successful early evening programme.
This team is back at The Pheasantry in the Kings Road with a new cabaret, Foreign Affair, on 1 October at The Pheasantry… Look out for them!