Published 28/02/2012 | 06:00
Camille O'Sullivan's reputation precedes her -- occasionally, you suspect, to her detriment. The first lady of alternative cabaret she is renowned for her outre live shows, which typically involve teasing the audience with feral miaows, larking about on swings and wrapping up in Christmas lights (she came close to electrocuting herself at the Edinburgh festival, winning an ovation from a crowd which presumed the sparks and singed hair were part of the performance).
All of which obscures her true talent as interpreter of some of the great torch songs of the 20th century. She has a cloud-scraping delivery, as capable of transforming Arcade Fire's 'Wake Up' into a cobwebbed lament as imbuing Radiohead's 'Nude' with much-needed humanity. O'Sullivan sings the hell out of her repertoire, locating eddies of sadness often barely hinted at in the original.
On stage, the two Camilles -- entertainer and singer -- stand face to face. Initially, the cackling vamp has the upper hand. Framed by a self-satisfied chamber-pop band and idiosyncratic light display (dangling ball gowns serve as over-sized light shades), she coos, purrs and preens. She is one-third crazy cat lady, one-third Wicked Witch of the West, one-third a character entirely of her own imagining.
This is a tremendous shtick, conveyed charmingly and effortlessly (you'd never guess she was a former architect who grew up in Cork). But you really need to be in the mood -- especially if you are seated near the front, to which she descends to put the frighteners on mortified punters.
When she sets the cartoon primping aside, though, she is stunning. A reading of a Tom Waits's 'All The World is Green' rivals the drunken one-two punch of the source material; her take on Gillian Welch's 'Revelator' strips away the broad Nashville-isms, so that you can see the tune's skeletal ribs poking through. On bended knees she caterwauls her way through the Nina Simone standard 'I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl', a banshee consumed by sexual demons.
Tellingly, the most memorable moment is also the least unadorned.
Stepping outside her burlesque persona O'Sullivan croons Nick Cave's '(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?' without embellishment, her voice a blade glinting in the dark. Sometimes less is more. How curious cabaret queen Camille O'Sullivan should, of all people, be the one to bring it to your attention.