In this glorious experiment with mixed results, five playwrights – EV Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson – were asked for ideas for songs, the brief no stricter than that. Conceived by Chloe Lamford, the result is an ethereal, mishmashed concert with an always brilliant band and bewitching lead singer, but varied quality of songs and lack of a through-thread.
The show – which I see a preview of – is meant to be in the much larger auditorium downstairs, but flooding has pushed it to the Court’s smaller space upstairs. The intimate nature is perfectly suited to the cosy show, with the band clustered in a circle, their instruments almost on top of each other, the audience crowded on three sides. When we’re encouraged to join in for a chorus (don’t worry, participation is minimal), there’s a sense of being gathered round a crackling fire.
Dutch singer Wende is magnetic, her voice a runaway, swirling, heady thing that feels as if it could take flight. In the same breath, she can switch octaves and moods, guttural and silky at once. With her, the multi-talented band – Nils Davidse, Louise Anna Duggan and Midori Jaeger – are wonderful, rotating through their circle of instruments, layering piano, cello, drums and synths.
While the five playwrights’ songs span a variety of topics, from a bloody battlefield to online dating, there is a recurring theme of female defiance. The band seem to breathe as one in the more heartfelt songs, particularly in a delicate tune about choosing not to be a mother.
But, perhaps inevitably for a scattered collection of short pieces, alongside the standouts are a collection of songs that slide from your memory almost as they’re happening. In some, the lyrics are too vague to hold on to, with others feeling like we’re hearing enticing beginnings but never seeing them through. There’s no talking in between to tie the pieces or process together.
Wende has such a talent for storytelling through song – wickedly funny, holding us on a knife’s edge, switching from a whisper to a roar – you wonder what this team could create were they telling one complete, cohesive tale.
The Song Project is at Royal Court, London, until 28 August.