There was a huge amount of talent on the stage during Melinda Hughes: Live at Zedel, but on this occasion it was not wholly focused as it could have been. There are so many ways in which Hughes can take her talents and her career, the problem almost seemed to be that she was going in all directions at once, and sometimes just concentrating on fewer directions and a simpler structure or spine for the show repays dividends.

Melinda Hughes is a performer of rare versatility, equally at home on the opera stage as at the piano bar, and with a vocal skill that can range from the velvety and voluptuous tone needed for Strauss and Puccini to the precise pointillist diction and dexterity required to put across witty lyrics of her own compositions. She also has the great advantage of a deep knowledge of cabaret history and tradition so that her songs can readily reference the world of Weimar and Coward as much as contemporary subjects of satire in the politics and popular culture of today. These are formidable talents and assets, but they were not deployed to wholly convincing effect in this evening, originally devised for a show in New York, and possibly better suited to audience tastes there.

For example, the opening song, for all the technical skill of its delivery, really had little to say – it was a self-deprecating search for a starting point, just stating that this was ‘another opening, another show’, and never found what it was looking for over the rainbow. This was a shame, given that some of the other excellent songs in the programme could have provided a more effective start to proceedings.

The best songs in the sequence were those where there was a story to tell or a political target to skewer. Tweets in the Night and Britannia waives the rules are well crafted commentaries on the Trump phenomenon and Brexit, both revealing what a sharp observer’s eye Hughes has for significant detail in today’s news, and how verbally skilful she is in pinning down her insights, particularly when it comes to identifying lexical abuses of one kind or another.

Her performance of Das Lila Lied, showed a real feel for the world of Mischa Spoliansky, and gave a sense of how a whole set devoted to the music of Weimar would be a real pleasure to hear from her in this venue. The segue into Lady Gaga’s Born this way, was also a neatly achieved and well thought-through device.

The highlights of the evening were two narrative songs, one about a disastrous weekend stay at a stately home – Country Estate, and the other – I’m going to meet Prince Harry – an increasingly hilarious account of nerves and anxiety-driven drinking ahead of a royal presentation party. These songs reminded me in a way of Joyce Grenfell at her best, evoking with great economy and accuracy a whole social world, perceived with both keen-eyed satire and great affection too. Here too the accompaniments from the band were particularly well integrated and witty, with a delightful keyboard quotation from Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony at one point.

These songs showed Hughes at her very best, showcasing her abilities as an actress and creator of character, as much as her skills as a singer: it is not hard to imagine her charismatic presence on the opera stage from these examples. However, there are plenty of parts in musical theatre too which could be hers equally well, and perhaps this is an area into which she could extend her formidable talents to mutual advantage

What worked rather less well, at least on this showing, were the monologues based on the imaginary diary of Melania Trump, which were scattered through the programme. Again, like Grenfell or Coward, Hughes has all the skills to bring off success in this genre, but the themes of satire deployed were repetitive, and one of these examples would have been quite sufficient. It is likely that this programme went down very well in New York City, but in London it palled. It would have been better to have a range of characters, each with their own monologue, to scatter among the songs.

In fact the balance in the programme could have been better finessed simply by including more songs and cutting down on the peripherals: rather less of meandering Melania, and rather less badinage with the audience about phone apps, a gag that went on too long. Hughes is an excellent performer of other people’s material (eg. a fine and supple rendition of the Mary Rodgers and Sondheim standard The Boy from…). We would gladly have heard more of this kind of material.

The evening ended very strongly with The Selfie Song, a mordant parody of the extremes of narcissim emerging in everyday life and popular culture, which brought together all this performers’ virtues in one number – narrative structure, polysyllabic rhyming wit, inventive acting, and vocal bravura. The band also got really stuck into the groove and strutted their own stuff around Hughes’ own material.

Hughes was performing with pianist and co-writer Jeremy Limb and two fine session musicians on bass and percussion, Richard Rickenbach and Jamie Fisher. It would have been a pleasure to hear more from these talented players, either in the form of riffs within individual songs or in a purely instrumental number. Limb’s laconic conversational interventions form a pleasing counterpoint with Hughes’ effervescent enthusiasm: they make a well contrived double act, and, again, we could have had more of this perhaps. Certainly the audience seemed to respond very well to their mutual affectionate friction.

There was a huge amount of talent on the stage, but on this occasion it was not wholly focused as it could have been. There are so many ways in which Hughes can take her talents and her career, the problem almost seemed to be that she was going in all directions at once, and sometimes just concentrating on fewer directions and a simpler structure or spine for the show repays dividends.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Melinda Hughes: Live at Zedel
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…