With a laminated A4 poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to my right and a garter flashing Velma Kelly to my left I felt I was invading the bedroom of a 15 year old wannabe ingénue.
More cinema poster reprints lined the walls of the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, but my initial anxiety of being transposed into a low budget, two-man version of Glee was thankfully dispelled when popular pianist Albert Combrink gracefully coaxed the somewhat rickety piano into a pleasing if rather fast-paced arrangement of Debussy’s iconic ‘Claire de Lune’, a fitting piece of music for the introduction of the graceful, soft-spoken Louise Howlett.
Howlett, in the role of self-appointed movie muse or cinema siren, explained how Debussy’s evocative ode to moonlight prominently features in many movies including Atonement, Oceans Thirteen and Twilight. Personally I’d have liked to enjoy this particular piece of music without being reminded of Edward Cullen, gaunt and garishly glittering in the sunlight.
This was the first example of a somewhat clumsy dialogue contextualizing each piece of music. The transitions between singing and speaking felt abrupt and uncomfortable, and encumbered the imagination from indulging in the strong cinematic imagery otherwise conjured up by the sweet subtleties of Howlett’s haunting voice.
At times, Howlett did touch on the historical significance of individual films, or their cinematic development, aesthetic, art or socio-politics. I’d have liked more of this. For the most part however she fell into the habit of simply recanting imagery from the films and describing why she felt a personal affinity towards them. Such introductions would benefit enormously either from a short, piquant, contextualised script, some light camaraderie between the two performers or perhaps even the projection of some (silent) film clips to distract the audience from some of the fussier costume changes.
Nonetheless as the show progressed, Howlett’s supple soprano sashayed through arias and eased effortlessly through Debussy, Mozart and Puccini. Her range and skill and her easy, pleasant interpretation of the music was aurally opulent. The characterization of Carmen was particularly charismatic with a surprisingly strong sensuality. The effortless embodiment of this of this femme fatale left me anxious to see what she would do with characters such as the chanteuses from Chicago.
Howlett and Combrink soared through jazz from the 1940s and 50s with excellent arrangements and superb skill – a highlight of the show. Howlett quaintly embodied the likes of Judy Garland and presented a particularly pleasing jazzy arrangement of ‘My Favourite Things’ in a programme that continued to show off Howlett’s range and versatility and Combrink’s impressive technique.
Cinema Serenades is an attempt to facilitate a greater understanding for music in motion, and a deeper appreciation of the carefully chosen and arranged soundscapes in films. All too often this is overlooked and – underdeveloped theatrical aesthetic aside – I thoroughly enjoyed Howlett and Combrink’s move to highlight the nuanced emotion that songs provide in cinema.
Cinema Serenades runs 2 – 16 June at the Golden Arrow Studio in the Baxter Theatre.