I Relate to the Sparrow, Cecil Sharp House, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, is an appropriate setting for Susannah Pearse’s cycle of songs inspired by British wildfowl and the people who watch them.

Pearse’s comic touch to songs will be familiar to Radio 4 listeners who have enjoyed her musical contributions to the sketch show John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.

Her working relationship with that show infuses this performance of her work as well: the songs are performed by Souvenir Programme cast member Margaret Cabourn-Smith, while Finnemore has provided sketch illustrations to accompany each of the dozen numbers being performed.

It’s a low-key presentation – Finnemore’s illustrations are presented on a standard office flip chart, the pages of which Cabourn-Smith turns manually to announce each new song. But little else more is needed, save for a few props – a mug of tea here, a mobile phone there – and some musical accompaniment.

The latter is provided by cellists Nick Allen and Sally Stares, and the choice of such instruments tends to avoid the cliché of imitating birdcalls through woodwind.

Cabourn-Smith’s comedy credentials help to extract the comic potential within Pearse’s material, such as ‘A Robin for Morse’, a celebration of how we all love the robin, and how one could therefore cheer up notoriously grumpy TV detective Inspector Morse.

But there is finely crafted pathos too, with a sadness underpinning many of Pearse’s songs. From the woman who can’t get to sleep because of the Dawn Chorus – who, it is revealed, was already awake – to a character who, like the swallows, wishes to escape the winter, albeit a metaphorical one.

If one listens closely, one can imagine a tale of a woman who is leaving one relationship and finds solace in birdwatching – not a hobby she initially takes to, but which eventually leads her to move on from the memories of a failed relationship.

Or maybe there’s nothing more to be read into the songs other than a love of bird life, puns and comic subversions of expectation. Either way, Pearse’s songs are delightful, and warmly performed. They are also short – the entire performance of 12 songs takes a little over half an hour – but as a showcase of Pearse’s writing talent, it makes for a fulfilling evening.

I Relate to the Sparrow ran as part of the Camden Fringe. Artwork shown by John Finnemore, as tweeted by Lotte Wakeham.

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