Affairs of the Heart [by James Wenley]
Glancing down the program for If I Only Had a Heart, you might think that director Aaron Tindell compiled this cabaret show’s song list by typing “heart” in his iTunes search bar. Each song has “heart” somewhere in the title, helpfully bolded in red. It’s a mix of Broadway tuners that only the most dedicated musical theatre fan would have heard of, like ‘Listen to Your Heart’ from Young Frankenstein, to some more familiar hits like ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Anyone who had a Heart’. The oldest is 1927’s ‘Stout-hearted Man’ and the newest 2012’s ‘Never Give all your Heart’ from TV’s bombshell Smash and Cindy Lauper’s ‘Hold Me in Your Heart’ from the musical Kinky Boots.
It soon becomes apparent just how carefully Tindell has programmed the songs to speak to one another and take up different positions, surmounting the initial gimmick. This is helped considerably by the interpretative talent of performers Jessie Cassin, Cherie Moore, and Rebecca Wright. Individually they play to their strengths – Wright excels in expressing pain and vulnerability, Moore is a playful seen-it-all before storyteller, and Cassin is at turns petulant and optimistic – and each get multiple showstoppers. As a trio, they are a divine harmonising powerhouse.
The show begins without much oomph or ceremony, and it takes a few songs for us both to get into the swing. The performer’s clutch wine and their sultry and sheer black undergarments suggests sex appeal, and also that we’ve walked in on them too soon; they change into elegant dresses as the show progresses (shapely work from costume designer Hayley Caudwell). While the cabaret tables and chairs are packed tightly together, the sparkling red curtain strips on the back wall gives the space an illusion of depth. The band (Sam Jury, Sung Jin Hong, and Robert Picot) are raised high behind the performers and musically are on top form. Jane Hakaraia’s lighting is gorgeous, pendant lightbulbs draped luminously around the space to create a mood of cabaret glamour, and I love how the see-through “ghost” chairs on stage catch the light.
The show opens reflection on the discourse of the love song as similar motifs (clichés?) reoccur and what’s striking here is how often these women position themselves as subjects for their men. This is especially obvious in the amount of times the performers use the men in the audience (almost never the women). On opening there were only two men in easy access of the performers, and one in particular got more than his share of lap seduction. There’s plenty of innuendo and ‘come on’ eyes. When Cassin sings ‘Zing! Went the strings of my heart’ she gestures towards her crotch.
The show is more interesting when it pushes against the put on sexuality, and a moment of real power is when Moore responds to Cassin’s frivolous ditty, slowing down the tempo and reconsidering the lyrics with pathos and emotional intensity. A doo-wop version of Debbie Harry’s Heart of Glass, performed by all three women, is a highly entertaining re-interpretation. A sequence towards the end of the show, themed on heartbreak and break-ups, builds towards a strong statement of defiance.
If I only had a Heart doesn’t begin strongly, nor does it deliver the big ending, but what this show evokes in the middle is perfection. It’s a night of intense feeling to make your own heart swirl and sing.
If I only had a Heart is presented by Dionysos and plays at The Basement until 25 October.