CABARET / Piano forte

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The Independent Culture
Piano forte: she lies on top of the piano, lights a cigarette, turns on her back, and sings 'Falling In Love Again' with the fag still in her mouth. It may not be the clearest rendition of Dietrich's famous number, but it's probably the smokiest. In her new show 'Illusions', Ute Lemper takes on songs made famous by Dietrich and Piaf, and with her strong, husky soprano voice turns them into something she might call her own.

At Sadler's Wells for three nights, at the end of a six-month world tour, she injects a fresh sense of narrative into songs that 'I look round and see everywhere'. Moving easily between German, French and English, Lemper catches shifts of thought with a precision that turns familiar lines on their head. During 'Milord' she swigs from a bottle of wine, shifts nervously from side to side, then crouches down low, clenching her knees for what seems like forever, as she entices the customers in. The movements are as deft as the thoughts: the raucous arm-flinging finish of 'Padam', or the puppet-like twitches that end with her in a heap in 'Polichinelle'. The inventive arrangements, by conductor / pianist Bruno Fontaine, include the band finger-clicking through this number. In one way, Lemper is an austere performer. Each song is self-contained. When she vamps it up in 'They Call Me Naughty Lola', somehow the inverted commas hang around the title. It's slightly knowing. Thrilling, but distant. The souvenir programme advertises her long legs and Lauren Bacall-looks, suggesting a glossy ad. But in the final songs - 'La Vie en Rose' and 'Les Feuilles Mortes' - she stays rooted to the chair, and pulls in the audience. This is Lemper at her most candid and direct.