By BRUCE DENNILL
Soulfire & Fireflies / Samantha Peo & Clifford Cooper / The Hide, Illovo, Johannesburg 8
Soulfire & Fireflies is an ever-evolving narrated review of torch songs, selections from various musicals and sophisticated interpretations of popular hits from a range of genre. Singer Samantha Peo (a favourite leading lady of South African theatre audiences) and pianist and experienced musical director Clifford Cooper are long-time collaborators, with their friendship evident in their easy familiarity and the affable sniping when one of them wanders off the otherwise polished script.
The show is designed as chic dinner theatre for a small, elegant venue and Peo and Cooper were hosted this time around by The Hide in Illovo, a bar and bistro affair attached to a high-end office complex and so not generally on the radar for arts or music fans. The venue’s name was, for this particular production, rather ironic, given that the choice of songs and the way they are decoded here sees Peo bare her soul, concealing very little as she and Cooper examine unrequited love and other heartbreaking aspects of relationships.
The intimacy created by the material, the performance and the limitations of the seating – only around 40 diners were present – is part of the power of such a concert, particularly when the performers are of this quality. Being taken into such confidence also means feeling the pain voiced by some of the lyrics and filled out by the context Peo provides between songs, which makes for some richly melancholic moments – not sad, exactly, but filled with unspoken “what ifs” and “next times”.
It’s not all pathos, though, with some of the songs custom-fitted to Peo’s wicked sense of humour (marked elsewhere by a trademark cackle that should be available as a ringtone or similar; it’s impossible to resist smiling yourself when you hear it).
It’s interesting to note that because of the format and the content of the show, it will apply more or less directly to the personality and circumstances of the person singing the songs depending on their state of mind and luckiness in love at the time of the show. Thus it can be a showcase of fragility and a bruised spirit – no less effective, but a more challenging piece to watch – or it can be (as was the case this time), a step towards an acceptance of self in spite of apathy or abuse on the part of romantic partners or others who have been emotionally invested in.
The songs are chosen to show off Peo’s fantastic stage-proven voice – as a dining companion mentioned, “She’s working her way through the Bernadette Peters songbook” – but also to give compositions from more mainstream contexts fresh meaning and emotional substance in a new creative milieu. That range extends from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, regularly voted one of the best songs in history and performed here with a huskiness that only adds to its poignancy; to a version of Radiohead’s Creep that suggested Stephen Sondheim had gone round for a rehearsal with Thom Yorke and the boys.
All in all, Soulfire & Fireflies is a wonderful advertisement for a more cosy, confidential type of theatre that is not as easy to access with the ever-smaller number of cabaret (or cabaret-friendly) venues. And in the case of The Hide, the bonus of a superb harvest table-style buffet meal and great service made for an evening of rare class.