It’s often forgotten that the members of Fascinating Aida have their own highly successful solo careers. Their songs reflect the particular emphases of the individual performers but are still highly distinctive, both variedly humorous and full of deeper and darker resonances too. After a very successful run in Edinburgh it was a particular pleasure to hear Dillie Keane’s latest mixture of old favourites and new compositions in a generously long session at The Pheasantry.
With its continuous dining jangle and some awkward sightlines, this is not the easiest venue to play, yet Keane commanded it effortlessly through sheer presence, storytelling power and comic timing, starting with her rendition of the first song prone on top of the concert grand re-enacting the mother of all hang-overs. This set the tone for what was to come. She even turned a microphone malfunction into a notable comic riff.
Most of the songs are of disappointed or reluctant love: no ‘Moon-June-Spoon-ery, for Dillie! Some are tart, some defiant, others wryly self-mocking, but none self-pitying. The items, whether familiar or new, are linked with many autobiographical stories from twenty years ago, which cover incidents from her life, her touring career and particularly her run-ins with a slew of fortune tellers, whose hokey fakery has had an alarming predictive power. The whole is a reminder that unhappiness and singledom are better catalysts to creativity than any amount of loved-up bliss. The melodies are catchy, and the lyrics (often written in collaboration with Adèle Anderson) dexterous especially in their polysyllabic rhymes. Keane’s mezzo embraces both formidable power and a regretful, wistful delicacy, combined with more than respectable keyboard skills nowadays rare in a specialist vocalist.
Keane’s sound track rarely embraces full throated affirmation, but the wit and spirited creativity of the lyrics creates a finely honed, point of resistance to the embrace of melancholy. It is often said of her that her work reminds one of Noel Coward, but actually the comparison goes deeper than surface wit. Coward and Keane use wit not merely as a ‘talent to amuse’ but as a determined fight-back against misfortune: the songs often start in despair and then summon up a gritty determination to carry on through a lovingly described sense of the absurdities of many of our dreams and escapades. Keane’s characters may start ‘lost in sensation, brain on vacation’, but they usually recover formidable faculties just in time to avoid the abyss.
One of the key features of any cabaret set is that there has to be enough variety for a diverse audience to relate to: there is enough universal outreach in Keane’s work for men and women, gay and straight, young and old to find something that will touch them – awkward first dates, a relationship that went on too long, grief for a lost friend, hesitation before ending an affair, shame and pleasure at returning to it and so many other familiar, perennial themes but here imagined freshly raw.
Keane is ably accompanied in a majority of the numbers by Michael Roulston, who calibrates his performance expertly so as to ensure that the trickiest verbal fireworks are fully audible. He still receives his own pianistic moments in the sun as well. Cabaret connoisseurs will know that Roulston has a rare expertise in fitting his performance around the individual showcased vocalist, and this evening was no exception. In a delightful and novel encore both performers combined their keyboard skills in a four-hand ‘Galop de Concert’ by Wilhelm Ganz, one of those showpiece nineteenth-century confections that teasingly threatens to go off the rails, but never does, quite..
All-in-all this was a splendid representation of the layers of meaning cabaret can explore, from outward frothy entertainment, through splinters of romantic regret with which all the audience can empathise, ending in trouper-like defiance of bad luck and misfortune which sends us all out of the door with fresh energy to face what life throws at us. Keane offers an addictive bitter-sweet linctus for life that you just can’t do without….