In the Court of ... Duke Special

Who’d have thought that death was so life-enhancing. Other people’s deaths of course, fictional people at that and creatures whose often grizzly ends have been wrapped up in a shroud of melody and sung for the entertainment of all God’s chillun.

And out of that ménage has grown Cathy Davey’s Songs to Scare Children (but in a very beautiful way), a fabulous homage to the macabre, the Twiddledee to life’s Twiddledum, came to a MAC metamorphosed into the Court of Duke Special for one week only.

The scene was set by David Turpin, who issued a word of warning: “You have come here because you’re curious, you’ve come here to sample the grotesque, the depraved, the perverse – and you will not leave unsatisfied if you leave at all,” he intoned darkly, setting the scene for the grotesquerie to follow.

For instance, the show starts off with Cathy herself singing Gloomy Sunday, a song also known as the Hungarian Suicide Song.

Legend has it that 19 people committed suicide immediately after hearing the song – it was first recorded in Hungary in 1935 – although luckily all members of Saturday night’s MAC audience have been duly accounted for.

Next up came Pete Pamf’s version of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, but his was no Burl Ives ditty. This was dark and scary and the monstrous import of the words revealed in Pamf’s voice and the minor key piano and bass accompaniment.

But if the carnivore hag was scary, Rhob Cunningham showed that sweetness of voice could convey as much fear as a snarl in a song whose title I don’t know but the great music just kept coming.

Gretta Gunn’s version of Cher’s Bang Bang, (natch), and  the ensemble singing Mammy Dear,the words of which are just

Lisa O'Neill

gorgeous, and then came the moment I became an instant and eternal fan of Lisa O’Neill who gave us a hearty rendition of Weila, Waile, Walia – where in God’s name did that song come from? – and then the ensemble did a mesmerising medley of Ring-a-Ring o Rosies, existential anthem Row, Row Row Your Boat, Little Miss Moffat = this is obviously not a show for anyone with arachnophobia! – and This Little Piggy Went to the Market.

If you’re listening at the back you’ll see the theme here and won’t be surprised that this was followed by Gilbert and Sullivan’s Tit Willow from the Mikado before finishing off the first half was a top-hatted Neil Hannon’s spirited version of Betty Boop’s The Mysterious Mose segueing into 3-6-9 The Goose Drank Wine.

Some of our best known songs would shame some video nasties and we merrily sings of murder and mayhem to children ann adult alike, yet, apart from the Hungarian Suicide Song, no-one has tried to ban them. We’ve possibly lost that healthy connection with the Otherworld we had when folk tales and folk songs were being sung around hearths in the middle of the countryside or city houses before electricity arrived but the delight in the macabre lingers on in these songs.

And they kept coming in the second half, with Duke Special and Ursula Burns and magician David Currie joining the cast and I could list every song that was sung-  from St James’ Infirmary via Let’s Do the Time Warp Again to Oh My Darling Clementine but every single song was a delight in what was also an evening celebrating the power of the human voice, from the sensitive to the strident.

And so, we left the MAC having laughed in the face of the Grim Reaper, our joie de vivre reinvigorated and basking in the glory of what we humans, all of us, like to do to help us get our head around the craziness of the world – we sing.



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