Writer: Genevieve Carver
Reviewer: Christie-Luke Jones
The Unsung stands before its audience wearing two equally impressive hats. On one hand, it’s a globe-trotting, heartbreaking eulogy for musicians who lived and died in varying degrees of obscurity. And on the other, it’s a joyful celebration of music as an undying beacon of hope and inspiration.
Poet Genevieve Carver and her three-piece funeral band are, from a purely musical perspective, an incredibly talented and versatile family of performers. Family, because Carver, Sharp, Knowles, and Bestall clearly enjoy each other’s company immensely.
Virtuoso percussionist Bestall enthusiastically mouths along to Carver’s verse, while Sharp and Knowles, both predominantly on strings, laugh and banter with their bandmates with the unabashed gusto of a group of close friends huddled around a pub table. This breezy onstage dynamic immediately rubs off on the audience, who interact with the rich ebb and flow of the show’s tone with a familiar ease.
The band’s atmospheric soundscapes span a far-flung array of genres and epochs, painstakingly crafted to capture the zeitgeist of each individual tragedy in all its minutiae. From 80s Sheffield synth-pop to West-African Djembe-fuelled rhythms, each of the show’s ‘tracks’ is beautifully and authentically assembled. Sharp’s violin lifts and drops the audience like the unpredictable winds of an approaching storm, while Knowles’ guitar gently simmers one moment then spits fire the next as it lurches from Caribbean-inspired chords to heavy metal licks.
Carver exudes a warm humility that perfectly complements the fragile and overwhelmingly human spirit at the heart of her storytelling. She speaks and moves with an everyday charisma that never infringes on the vain or self-indulgent, inviting the audience to cling attentively to her verse as it swings wildly back and forth across the void between pain and affirmation. Her anecdotal glimpses into the processes behind her craft only add to the laid-back, familial ambience of the show, simultaneously showcasing her sharp, self-deprecating wit and seemingly innate ability to synergise her own emotions with those of her various subjects. As such, these charming and insightful interludes do so much more than merely contextualise Carver’s writing.
A particularly poignant and well-crafted highlight is The Eagles of Death, a painful tribute to the victims of the Bataclan concert hall attack in Paris in 2016. Carver cuts through the bleak statistics of the tragedy’s media coverage and invites the audience to walk in the shoes of Lola, who at 17 years of age was the Bataclan attack’s youngest loss of life. Carver skilfully colours in the gaps between the lines of the various newspaper articles covering the attack with a beautifully honest synthesis of her own relationship with tragedy and a haunting reflection on Lola’s final hours. Carver’s emotional resonance with the event sings along with the cyclical chant of her hymn, and the dread image of eagles circling overhead is seared forcefully into the audience’s collective consciousness.
The Unsung is a heartfelt and much-needed reflection on how we as a society, and as individuals, experience death. Carver’s emotionally intelligent and deeply humanising verse is backed by a four-piece musical arrangement that somehow plays with the power and nuance of a full orchestra. A truly engrossing experience.
Runs until: 6 September 2017 then touring nationally | Image: Alexandra Wallace