REVIEW: Camille O'Sullivan

A starry roof. Paper animal heads. A tiny lantern shaped like a rabbit. A tree in the middle. And circus music being pumped out almost everywhere.

Sounds a little crazy, but more than a little interesting. And all that's on stage before London-born, Cork-raised, Irish-French Camille O'Sullivan and her accompanying musicians arrive in the Festival Marquee of Belfast's Custom House Square during another very entertaining and eclectic Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

O'Sullivan herself is the very definition of "eclectic". Known not to approve of labels such as "burlesque" and "cabaret" (though you could certainly apply both to her) she is the sort who frequently blends rock and theatre into a uniquely intimate, broadly appealing cocktail.

For O'Sullivan the emphasis is always more than music, as I myself found out five years ago at Derry-Londonderry's Waterside Theatre when she translated Shakespeare's The Rape Of Lucrece into, and you'll forgive me for being Extreme (sic), more than words.

It's music, motion and monologuing bathed in multi-coloured lighting, props and costumes, a distinct adaptation of other people's work - in the case of The Carny Dream show, tunes - with a playfully and earnestly dramatic tint. And it's frankly marvellous. Maddening, zany, moody, mysterious, but above all, marvellous.

Looking nowhere near her forty-seven years, O'Sullivan signals her arrival in a sparkly red overcoat, blowing a kiss to a nearby observer who's decided to whip out his smartphone for a picture this early. It's the manner of a brave rock star and a kindly show woman, Polly Jean Harvey meets the recently idealised PT Barnum, if you will.

She possesses an inner thrust and outer rhythm to go with mischievous poses and sly but friendly inter-song asides, all of which are surely enough to make a punter smile, move and stamp their feet almost unconsciously at this all-seated gig. O'Sullivan is remarkable because she has her cake and eats it – her persona is superficially unsettling yet curiously reassuring at once, respectful to and creative with the artists she adapts for her performance.

Pulling no punches in her various costume changes and accommodation of outside forces (hearing a motorcycle rev up outside the tent helps rather than hinders a tune), O'Sullivan's prancing, even hypnotic passion is everything as she delves into the catalogues of David Bowie (namely, "Port Of Amsterdam"), Oasis ("Half The World Away"), Bob Dylan ("Simple Twist Of Fate"), Prince ("Purple Rain") and Nick Cave ("The Ship Song"). It is the equivalent of poetry in mirth or motion, perhaps even both, the humorous and the poignant combining for a show genuinely like no other I've seen.

Perhaps the biggest highlight, for me, is "Misery Is The River Of The World", where Tom Waits is given a makeover of sometimes throaty, sometimes breathless and sometimes raspy mimicry with elements of gibberish, baby talk and mock snoring at the microphone. Ridiculous though it sounds on paper, is it heart-lifting and hilarious at once, closely rivalled only by the Nick Cave sing-along in the encore that doesn't quite run so smoothly. But considering the strong rapport that O'Sullivan has established with the audience by that stage, no one can blame her for wanting to try – and what we get is certainly memorable, preceding a poignant conclusion where she sends us away into the night with the hope of pleasant dreams.

As her second studio album implies, Camille O'Sullivan is indeed a Changeling. Or, for want of a better word, a Camilleon (sic).

Simon Fallaha

Camille O'Sullivan performed at Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Photography by Bernie McAllister.

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