Christine Bovill is a Scottish gem. All the talent of the cabaret divas found at the Big Four, yet none of the airs and graces. This lovingly-put-together hour, blending 1920s American song with reflections on social and cultural history, ought to win hearts – just like her previous Fringe shows, Piaf and Paris, have.
The Roaring 20s were a time of optimism and confidence after the terror of the Great War. There was a joie-de-vivre about them we’d do well to rediscover in the 2020s. Bovill – in period dress, naturally – sets the tone for the evening by reeling off a list of all the things you’d associate with the decade, and some you wouldn’t automatically (the pop-up toaster!), before offering interpretations of songs that for her capture that progressive spirit – Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love; Puttin’ On The Ritz. This is the Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagining, and for a while, all looks well.
But like Fitzgerald’s books, the decade had darker strands too. What began in prosperity ended in the Wall Street Crash, and though social change was happening, it wasn’t happening fast enough to help some. Bovill takes us to those dark places, explaining why not everyone had an invite to this endless party, especially not if you were black or poor. With that message in our ears, her version of Ol’ Man River brings a tear to the eye and Brother Can You Spare A Dime? sends a chill down the spine.
Bovill’s voice is soft-edged and soulful, with a slight huskiness lending character to the vibrato. It’s hard not to hear her previous French work in it, and there’s no denying that’s what it’s ideally suited to. But it imparts a different flavour to the jazz, blues and showtunes she tackles here. There’s no artifice to it – it’s honest and human – so even though she doesn’t have the personal backstory of Josephine Baker (married twice by age 15) or Bessie Smith, whose songs she sings, you trust her as their interpreter.
Tonight You Belong To Me takes you through the gears. No sooner has she brought you to the edge of tears, than she’ll throw in a novelty song (Yes We Have No Bananas) to lighten you up again. She’ll joke around dressed as Charlie Chaplin, then leave you in pieces singing his song Smile. Michael Brawley on piano and Charlie Stewart on double bass and violin are able accompanists on the journey. This is a slice of musical history worth savouring.