The pre-recorded Zoom show launches straight in, no introductions. Rummel tells of a metaphor of the way the French tell stories: I give you three flowers. One for love, one for trust, and one for bees to sting you if you forget me. I think this is meant to be endearing but I find it a bit concerning. I would hate for any group of people to be painted as vindictive. Initially, I’m a bit confused. Is this a well-known metaphor in France? I turn to Mum who confirms she has never heard of this before, so it must be a metaphor of Rummel’s making, but starting off confused isn’t the best way to begin a show.
Rummel sings songs from famous French singers like Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel (who admittedly was Belgian, but I only learnt that after the show), Zaz, and Claude François, and includes a song she wrote herself and a song sung in German. Instantly, as she begins to sing ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ by Brel, Mum hears an accent when she’s singing, which ruins her suspension of disbelief, but she starts to sing along with Rummel anyway. Mum loves Zaz, in some ways the modern equivalent to Piaf, and while Rummel is certainly a good singer, Mum is left wanting to listen to the original songs – partly because she’s all hyped up to listen to them now, and partly because she doesn’t think Rummel is as good as the original. I get the sense that Rummel is trying to mimic the way the original singers sang their songs (which in one song meant she had such a closed mouth I can hardly comprehend what she is saying). This feels odd to me. Part of me would rather hear Rummel sing these songs in the way her voice would suit singing them, especially if she’s not a perfect mimic (which a single person hardly is), yet that would, in some ways, defeat the purpose of the audience travelling through France musically without the jetlag.
The show is interwoven with some stories from her travels and time working in France, as well as some idioms and common metaphors the French say. At one point, Rummel teaches us the (probably) most well-known French song in the world, ‘Frère Jacques’, and we sing along to it. Mum and I sing it in canon, even though there are only two of us. There is a cute video afterwards of the song sung by various puppets in different languages, demonstrating the universality of music.
There’s no doubt that Rummel is a dynamic performer. In a video shot at a jazz bar in Reykjavík, Iceland, as part of their Fringe Festival, Rummel sings ‘Milord’ by Piaf and does these crazy high kicks - just whips them out of nowhere - and the audience whoops and claps. She knows how to work a crowd. Even in the Zoom performance, her eyes and face are quite expressive, if a bit daunting at times because of how close her face is to the camera, which is quite standard in Zoom meetings. Yet, even in this Zoom formatting, Rummel encourages her audience to unmute themselves and tell her if they’ve been to France, where in France they’ve been, or what they’re looking forward to next year. These touches are lovely to see, especially retrospectively. It gives a personal element to the show, but one that comes from the audience, as people are watching at home in their lounges or studies.
The most interesting part of the show is towards the end. Rummel shares stories of how her mannerisms, even pitch of voice changes when she’s speaking various languages – French, English, German. She goes on to point out how important it is to learn new languages and be exposed to different cultures as it’s a truly wonderful and unique way to learn new things about yourself – which I absolutely agree with.
This is what I wish the show encompassed more in the breaks between the songs. This is not to say that people who are not from a culture can’t be interested by or share their findings of a culture with others, but unless you’re a comedian who can spin these findings into some entertaining jokes, and without also expressing why you find this thing or that thing interesting, Chansons lacks substance. I wish Rummel gave more of herself in this show, by talking about what she has learnt about herself by living and working in France, and by speaking French. I wish instead of the stock photos of Paris or provincial France as the images we see between or during songs, she shared photos of her travels. Make the show more personal. The personal will give the deeper subtext. Otherwise, the show risks repeating clichés about the French, plenty of which I have heard all my life. Currently, it sits as a superficial, whimsical “outing”, which is fine, but not great. If we’re travelling without jetlag, then give us the travel, all of it, the ups and downs.
But what is Mum’s overall critique, you ask? She has had a good time and is happy to have heard some famous French songs, even if it did just prompt her to find the originals online. And for me, it is a nice hour to have spent with Mum, and I have even learnt a new song from the show, one Mum insisted I should have known because she sang it to me when I was little. Well, I know it now!
Chansons – Songs & Stories from Piaf, Brel, & Me is available on demand until the 12th of March through C Arts as part of the 2022 NZ Fringe Festival. Find your tickets here.