REVIEW: Tomson Highway's Songs in the Key of Cree UK premiere at the Finborough Theatre

L-R Tomson Highway, Patricia Cano, Marcus Ali
Tomson Highway's Songs in the Key of Cree 
(Finborough Theatre. 6th May 2017. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The UK premiere of Songs in the Key of Cree took place in the Finborough, an intimate theatre space in a room-above-a-pub in Earls Court. It's a hugely entertaining 80-minute show.

The playwright/ songwriter /pianist Tomson Highway definitely leaves his mark on the broader consciousness of Canadians. I tried to gauge the scale of this before going to the show, by asking Canadians about his place in their national culture: "Celebrated," said one friend. "He's a HUGE big deal," and "he opened the way for other aboriginal Canadian writers and artists to follow," said the others.

Having seen the show, one can really see why. As a native Cree - one of the largest of the aboriginal populations of North America - Highway enters the fractured arena of racial politics with a deftness, a lightness of touch, a sense of pride-in-difference - and also a sense of humour- which are in themselves something quite remarkable, and different. He doesn't shy away from important issues, but, as one critic has described it, he "tells rough truths beautifully." (LINK).

The show's most powerful and poignant moment made its point with seriousness. He tells the (true) story of an aboriginal girl who was gang-raped and murdered - and where no effective prosecution was ever made. But he does it with the device of imagining a letter of premonition written by her on the day before the murder. It is a kind of "Miss Otis Regrets" with a far more serious purpose, and as sung by Patricia Cano, was incredibly moving.

Patricia Cano

There was seriousness,and intent, but also, and above all, there was lightness. In a musical with a leading role for an inquisitive Postmistress who has other-worldly insights too... (echoes of Trenet's Le Facteur Qui S'envole in that theme...), he introduces the character of a serial seducer from Louisiana in a song which sounds like a cousin of Basin Street Blues. There's also a cheerful Brazilian character who drifts into town, toting a playful and bouncy Jobim-ish samba.

One of the recurring themes of the show is the delight which Highway and Cano take in the innate musicality of the Cree language. There is also a delight - shared by Cano as well, in drifting into the beauty and musicality of other languages. I loved an episode in Italian -  a playful tarantella where a woman's desperation for chocolate (while playing bridge!) becomes a potent life-force, and one in Quebecois French, where clucking matronly disapproval in French recalled those vivid voices in that classic Montreal novel La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte by Michel Tremblay.

Musical standards were high throughout. Highway, who remembered fondly having studied the piano in London, is of a standard as a pianist where he deserves to be digging into the keys of a Steinway or Fazioli rather than trying to coax beauty out of a road-weary keyboard. Saxophonist Marcus Ali is a classy improviser, and Cano does delicacy and allusion and power/volume equally convincingly.

Ler's hope they come back to London.

Highway, Cano and Ali acknowledging the final applause



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