Dalston Songs

Dalston Songs [When I Think of Home; Coffee; Dust; Places we love; Forgotten song; Disappeared; No one can live with a death inside; The whole world; Clarity; Dalston dishes; The journey; I’ve got it; Night call; Mint teal; Card game; Mashed potatoes; They searched his chest; Wake; Like a displaced person; Corridors; Doors; In a strange land; Hello I’m calling; Drinking song; Old portrait; Fish; Armenian hands; Hey yamo; What language do I speak?; Epilogue; Where do you come from?; Here] [World premiere of full-length version]

Helen Chadwick Group [Helen Chadwick, Barbara Gellhorn, Hazel Holder, Soraya Mahdaoui, Dave Camlin, Kevin Kyle, James Lailey & Nawroz Oramarî]

Steven Hoggett – Choreography & Co-direction
Miriam Beuther – Design
Chahine Lavroyan – Lighting
Duncan Chave – Sound Design

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 1 May, 2008
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

This work is rooted in Dalston – a particular locality. It is the testimony of people who live there – people for whom travelling into Highbury, Canonbury or Hackney involves leaving home-territory and circulating in a foreign land. But many of these inhabitants of Dalston began their lives in Turkey, in Ireland, in Serbia.

The scene is a café in Dalston. It is bare. The furniture is cheap and characterless. Yet the walls are rich in tawdry posters depicting food, ranging eloquently and internationally from mashed potato to kebabs.

The café is a meeting-place – a meeting-by-chance place, where bonding-through-circumstance occurs between people who have nowhere else to go. The people make the café international. Equally, they make the café a writhing complex of lives that used to be lived elsewhere, a centre for trying to contact nearest and dearest living continents away.

The basic sounds of “Dalston Songs” are taped interviews with local inhabitants who narrate their stories in matter-of-fact tones, accented from various elsewheres: the Jew who escaped the Nazis, the grown-up son of unnamed nationality whose mother would not speak to him until he had satisfactorily identified himself to her by accurately describing a large mole on a particular part of his body.

The Helen Chadwick Group performed these songs in an immaculate a cappella. The purity of the simple melodies, as well as the clarity of diction and unerring balance and intonation of the performers, gave the music a timeless quality while providing a committed, secular descant to the appalling, sad stories that the speakers had to tell.

Most songs followed after one or more interviews. Some depicted moments being passed in the café – the exiles’ present. The women sang about coffee and dust; the men about preferring mashed potato to other foods (and to women). Some songs expressed larger questions, too great for the interviewees to express in their halting English, while others poured forth in counterpoint to the spoken words of an interview with the song generally having precedence, the sad, spoken tones acting as a sotto voce ground-bass.

The performing format was simple. We began with the four women. The melodies sat comfortably, mostly in the middle range of their voices – two lower voices and two somewhat higher, harmonising agreeably and variedly. There was occasional counterpoint and a hint of canon – ingratiating and welcome. The men introduced themselves with ‘Mint Tea’; with ‘Card game’ they used their hands and matchboxes to accompany themselves in lively syncopation. On the whole, their melodies were simpler still and their sounds often came close to humming, soft like suave barbers. Later, women and men came together. Soraya Mahdaoui and Nawroz Oramarî, at different times, gave us something of the Eastern Mediterranean, gently electrifying. Despite her efforts to be merely one amongst others, Helen Chadwick was mesmerising. The cool, low timbre of her voice was timeless. Her movements and gestures had the gravity, definition and grace of a woman from Java.

The performance seemed a little over-long, but I had no wish to break the spell. On several occasions, I thought it was about to end; at first, I viewed this as a defect in devising the show, expecting a sorrowful, resounding climax with no levity to follow. Then I realised that the somewhat rambling structure was in fact a wonderfully true and evocative depiction of the Dalston people’s lives. We were witnessing a rich, undulating interplay of harrowing memories, present guffaws, physical relish, pained longing, the respite of a roof over one’s head and the offer of contact, such as it might be, from one’s fellow human beings.

  • Also performed on 2 May at 7.30 p.m. and 3 May at 3 p.m. & 7.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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