When the lights go up at the MAC in Belfast, there’s an odd, utterly deadpan character sitting stage-right in a plain suit and tie. Scattered round him is a motley collection of paintings, drawings, soft toys, bric-à-brac and kooky paraphernalia.
To the rear, naked dolls swing from rectangular steel-framed columns, and the stage is stuffed with instruments, some exotic – a gilded harp, an antique gramophone with glistening horn, a xylophone, a concertina.
It’s a strange, time-warped environment suggesting an eccentrically accoutred pawn-shop, or a Victorian play-room gone seriously Gothic. In fact it’s the setting for Songs that scare children (but in a very beautiful way), a cabaret presentation devised by singer-songwriter Cathy Davey, first seen four years ago at the Dublin Fringe Festival.
The show has since gone through a number of mutations, the latest arriving onstage at the MAC as part of the venue’s inaugural ‘In the Court of….’ residency, curated by the effortlessly eclectic Duke Special.
The deadpan suit stage-right is ‘Doctor’ David Turpin, compère for the evening, whose spoken introductions to the performing ‘specimens’ drip with a lugubrious morosity that makes the recitation of the latest unemployment statistics sound cheerful.
And what a gallery of ‘specimens’ Turpin has to work with, all doggedly determined to scrape away the surface of cheerfully familiar songs, revealing what lies beneath the creepy-crawly underbelly of the superficially ear-pleasing or innocuous.
Dublin's Cathy Davey sets the gently macabre tone of the evening. Her softly undulating traversal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Tit Willow’, to an accompaniment of dreamily lapping church organ and taped bird-twitters, somehow manages to be both soothingly mellifluous and a mite unsettling.
Davey’s vibrato-free voice, combining child-like purity of intonation with a winsome jazz-style phrasing recalling Billie Holiday, is an intoxicating instrument, alluring yet with intimations of disturbing undercurrents in it.
With Lisa O’Neill, the disturbing bits are already prominently on the surface. Jabbing her acoustic guitar robotically, she delivers a keening ballad about a woman pen-knifing her infant to death with a juddering energy approaching full-blown relish. I hope the child protection services aren’t listening.
In terms of barely suppressed neurosis, Belfast’s Ursula Burns gives O’Neill a fair run for her money. Burns’s quivering, disembodied delivery of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic ‘I Put a Spell On You’ has an obsessive, trance-like quality to it, the spookily swirling mini-cadenzas Burns flicks from her harp sending shivers down the spinal area.
The ‘let’s-do-creepy’ bug infects even the decidedly uncreepy Duke Special, normally such a pleasant, well-mannered fellow. Mid-way through a thoroughly affable rendition of the old Ink Spots standard ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire’, the Duke whips out a billy-can of petrol, and starts preparing it for incineration.
And finally there’s Neil Hannon. Can you imagine the Divine Comedy frontman mugged up as an undertaker? He is here, rattling his way gleefully through a word-perfect version of ‘The Clapping Song’ (the one where a tobacco-chewing monkey gets choked), and crooning a somewhat less than word-perfect ‘Oh My Darling, Clementine’, to which the audience sings along happily.
Did I say ‘happily’? I did, and there’s the rub. What exactly is ‘happy’ about a song in which a man’s lover drowns in gory detail, and he reacts by canoodling with her little sister? Why do we relish unpleasantness in music, while studiously attempting to exclude it from our personal experience?
It’s that kind of devil in the detail, where smiles are suddenly smirks, and nursery rhyme turns nasty rhyme, that Davey’s eerily seductive show probes whimsically all evening. It’s weird, twisted, eccentric, funny, and genuinely original. A captivating experience.