The Waterfront Studio provides a suitably intimate theatre setting for this performance of The Simon & Garfunkel Story (playing 18th & 19th May) ensconcing the show within the realms of cabaret folk rather than arena rock.
Even sitting in the back row, one is guaranteed a good view of the performers, and solid acoustics which are sometimes dwarfed by the cavernous main Auditorium next door. It’s a wise choice, because Simon & Garfunkel’s music weaves intricate stories that speak directly to and engage with the audience even when they’re singing about themselves for themselves.
This show is pitched somewhere between a tribute band and theatre show, with the emphasis on the tribute band end of things. Performers Gregory Clarke (Simon) and Joe Sterling (Garfunkel) stride on stage looking enough like the originals to sell the illusion, with Sterling’s mad curly mop a little too full on front for the full ‘Art’, as they open with the haunting ‘Sound Of Silence’, itself turning into a powerful number as the rest of the band kicks in.
This is a well-oiled machine. Beautifully harmonised voices, and a slick accompaniment of musicians (Dean Elliott, Leon Camfield and Adam Smith) who capture the 60s vibe well. There are smiling faces throughout, and I’m utterly convinced that the musicians are enjoying themselves as they play.
Clarke and Sterling are a little more restrained, in a nod to their models, possibly a little too much. The stillness is at times overwhelming, though it serves to remind us that Simon & Garfunkel’s power lies in their voices and lyrics rather than any particular stage antics. Even stripped back to just two men and an acoustic guitar the sound is powerful and fills the room. Clarke as Simon carries the night, a closer vocal approximation, evident talent with a guitar and the appearance of a warmer personality – which isn’t to belittle Sterling, but rather represents the evident power balance in the 60s act.
While the music is played essentially in character, the actual story is told by Clarke and Sterling as themselves, with reverence and admiration. When they first speak, the crisp southern English accents throw the attention and remove much of the suspension of disbelief. It’s an odd choice in many respects, and one would have anticipated a more staged telling of the biography, especially considering the cast is drawn from seasoned theatrical professionals. It most obviously falls apart as a narrative device in the segue from actual footage to the ‘recreation’ of the 1981 Central Park reunion. If an external narrator had been engaged, or the story had been told in character then this should have made for a more impactful moment. But the show has had a successful West End run and is now touring the UK so that decision has evidently long-since passed.
The show is accompanied by an ever-changing photo and video collage projected onto a screen behind the band. Iconic images of contemporary stars, footage of places as diverse as New York and Blackpool, and photos of Simon & Garfunkel themselves help sell the setting and put a context on the chronology of the narrative.
There are however a few small issues with this section of the show. What seems to be an erroneous projector setting has the footage displaying at the wrong aspect ratio – wider than it really ought to be, and something that irked this reviewer. There also seemed to be problems with the sound during sections of video, where the mix was faulty and I couldn’t make out what was being said. This was amplified in the second half when during a moving montage of photos of vivid faces of elderly men and women which led into a touching performance of ‘Old Friends’ an oaf in the front row guffawed throughout, completely confusing the mood for the whole room. It was probably also a clear example of the difficulty in defining the show as not really theatre but not quite a gig either as said oaf and several chums talked liberally throughout the performance. One imagines in a true theatre setting the performers might have addressed this.
Overall the experience itself was overwhelmingly positive. Belfast audiences can be notoriously hard to warm up, with attempts at audience participation meeting mixed results. Certainly after the half time drinks the room was more affable and were happy to stomp and clap and sing along. I could have sworn the woman beside me was going to weep, so emotionally engaged was she by the performance. To bring someone to tears is testament to the show and the source material.
During the 2 ½ hours, all five studio LPs are visited, moreorless in chronological order. There’s something of a greatest hits about the package but there were songs here I wasn’t familiar with and it was nice to see nods to their origins as Tom and Jerry and an instrumental interlude that embraced their solo work (though a pity we didn’t get a vocal sampling of the same). The set includes ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, ‘Bleecker Street’, ‘Kathy’s Song’, ‘Patterns’, ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’ ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Mrs Robinson’, ‘A Hazy Shade Of Winter’, ‘Homeward Bound’, ‘Cecilia’ among others and concluded with ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and ‘The Boxer’ and a prompt and deserved standing ovation from most in the audience.
This reviewer was particularly impressed with the two-song encore as they’ve long lingered on my list of least-favourite numbers but the live setting coupled with a slightly increased tempo across the show gave the necessary punch for me to reconsider them.
The audience evidently loved the show, and while the direction is subdued, the emphasis on the songbook should be applauded. For a story that makes much of Simon & Garfunkel’s friendship this is as close as we’re likely to get to witness an approximation of it first hand. While mention is made of the fractured friendship, its never allowed to intrude completely on an uplifting evening.
- As a final note I see the show is destined to return to Belfast on 8th December for a performance at the SSE Arena. One wonders if a modified show is in place to capitalise on the vastness of the arena setting – as a straighter tribute the suspension of disbelief could be more easily sustained in a venue where audiences can’t see detail quite so easily. I also suspect the sound might get lost in that cavern. But this is a well-oiled machine and entertainment is guaranteed.
The Simon & Garfunkel Story is on tour across Ireland until 29th May 2016.
For more information: http://www.thesimonandgarfunkelstory.com/tour-dates/