Linda Thompson, Lyric Hammersmith, London

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The Independent Culture

Taking the stage amid the opulence behind the Lyric's modern façade, Linda Thompson opens the first of three nights dedicated to the kind of song and dance this gaudy theatre opened its doors to in the 19th century. She rises to the challenge of Millie Lindon's tear-jerker "Sing Us One of the Old Songs", a grand folly of Victorian sentimentality.

Reaching back a century to the likes of Harry Lauder, Al Johnson and Dan Leno, Strange How Potent draws on Noël Coward's line about the power of cheap music. It proves a fascinating exploration of music hall, vaudeville and chanson, with a repertoire ranging from bawdy comic songs through sharp social commentaries and intricate constructions in sentiment.

Led by the Lyric's artistic director Neil Bartlett, MC for the night, a cast of family and friends - including Thompson's children Teddy and Cres, singers Martha Wainright and Bob Davenport, cabaret artiste Justin Bond and musicians including pianist Michael Haslam and ukulele player George Hinchcliffe - emote and mug their way through songs from the 1890s to the 1930s. Thompson and Neil Bartlett have plundered a wealth of sheet music to unearth songs that can veer from mirth to misery in the bridge from chorus to verse.

Her voice carries a lot of freight; it can be declamatory, accusatory and bitingly witty, as well as nakedly vulnerable. On stage, she has an easy, self-deprecating, slightly anarchic presence. The elegant, minimal musical accompaniment gets these long-forgotten songs back on their feet and treading the boards. Only a handful of them falter.

The focus is on getting to the heart of the songs - "Nobody Knows You When You're Down", sung in aching tones by Wainwright, is one of the highlights. Thompson excels on the cheaper songs: "I Wonder Who's Kissing Him Now" is a powerful sexual lament, while "She Was Poor, But She Was Honest" mixes class war and savage social commentary.

If there's a drawback, it's the relentless chirpiness of many of the songs. Still, Strange How Potent's examination of a largely dismissed genre is a refreshing, affecting and surprising experience.

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