St James Studio, London SW1
Cabaret rooms are like buses – you wait ages and along come three. Following the opening of the lush Matcham Room at the Hippodrome and the Art Deco splendour of The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, we now have a third plush little boîte in which to sample great singing. The St James Studio is the basement of the stunning new St James Theatre, located a hop and a skip from Victoria Station, on the site of the old Westminster Theatre.
On a recent Sunday night, Australian chanteuse Alison Jiear played a blinder of a gig here, to a rightly adoring crowd. An astounding talent, she combines impeccable artistry, great warmth and complete command of her audience. With a voice that can tackle any style, she does just that. Always totally connected to her material, over the course of two riveting hours she made a packed house laugh, cry, groove, mellow-out and get funky. Accompanied by a stonking quartet led by Dave Arch, known to millions as the MD of TV’s Strictly Come Dancing, I can’t recall seeing anyone before her with such sheer versatility.
On Strictly, versatility must also be Arch’s middle name, and here he pulled off the same trick, producing for Jiear a set of dazzling arrangements, covering the whole gamut of musical styles. Who else but Jiear could rival Al Jarreau with his swing take on My Favourite Things or up the pitch and slow the tempo on You Are My World and make that old Cilla war horse sound fresh, or even resurrect The Seekers, with a jaunty In a World Of Our Own. Her talent for soul exploded in a mini Aretha section, culminating in a very personal tribute to her own favourite goddess, Chaka Khan, with the low down and dirty Tell Me Something Good.
Her lethal wit got unleashed in the devilishly clever One Note Samba, whose musical challenge nearly finished off her devoted MD. Arch too displayed an exquisite sensitivity himself in his piano solos on numbers like Blue Skies. Carole King, Janis Ian and Barbra Streisand each got a nod and she finished off with a heartfelt Both Sides Now, which didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
Barbra’s Papa Can You Hear Me segued into some spiritual music, something also close to her heart, and she related how she had recorded a special album of Christian music for her Dad, when he became seriously ill. Desperately wanting to record an “inspirational” album, she is now trying to raise the funds, but on the evidence of this, her focus should be on capturing a live set, as that would really convey her special appeal.
Criminally underrated and underused since her stint as the female lead in Jerry Springer – The Opera, she is so much more than a West End gal trying out her act. Her struggle with “weight issues”, as they say, while in the chorus of Les Misérables meant she never did manage to take over the role of Fantine, as was promised. But her loss was our gain as it inspired a deliciously twisted take on I Dreamed A Dream, where it is re-born for the Grand Ole Opry.
The key to her brilliance is that she approaches each genre with such love and respect. There is no ironic distance here. She knows she’s good and she gets on with it and that confidence is enchanting.
She is in Ronnie Scott’s on April 28 as part of a Frank and Ella show but Under the Influence is the set to look out for.