wed 17/04/2024

Benjamin Clementine, Theatre Royal, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Benjamin Clementine, Theatre Royal, Brighton

Benjamin Clementine, Theatre Royal, Brighton

One man, one woman, on piano and cello, wow Brighton into silence

The shy but remarkable singer from Edmonton

Benjamin Clementine’s idea of repartee with the audience is producing a clementine orange and smiling shyly. Clad in his trademark greatcoat-over-naked chest, with bare feet and outrageous pompadour hair, he sits at a spotlit grand piano and manoeuvres the fruit gently about before setting it down. It’s hardly even a gag but, given his between-song demeanour the rest of the time, this is the Clementine equivalent of prat-falling on a banana skin while making farting noises.

His audience, however, are onside and audibly respond with affectionate laughter. He has created a consensus bubble of hushed appreciation and no-one is going to pop it.

Clementine’s startling appearance on Later... with Jools Holland in 2013, followed by his extraordinary debut album earlier this year, have made him a delicious cult in the UK. He’s already a rising pop star in mainland Europe. His stature here, though, is enough to fill the Theatre Royal, a gorgeous, balconied, Regency affair that very much suits his demeanour. That said, it's also easy to imagine his intimate, forlorn, cabaret-tinted musical worldview in a dingy, Parisian bar at 3.00 AM, but he probably had enough of that during his years as a homeless ex-pat Londoner busking in the French capital, working his way up.

He spends almost the entire concert sat at a grand piano in a spotlight. Nina Simone and Antony Hegarty are, rightly, the comparative touchstones thrown about, but Clementine is very much his own creature. He starts with his album’s closer, "Gone", with its opening line, “I remember walking down the A406 holding bags of mother-sent cornflakes,” all delivered in an arch, quavering tone. He’s an acquired taste. One that I share. The combination of Larkin-esque mundanity and po-faced Weimar nightclub theatricality is strange and affecting, totally individual.  By the time he reaches the catchy, even poppy, “Cornerstone”, the place is putty in his hands. He occasionally looks out bashfully at the venue but his chat consists of the tiniest whispers, almost inaudible, most of them simply, “Thank you, Brighton.”

Three songs in he’s joined by cellist Barbara le Liepvre, who jousts with his piano melodies for the rest of the gig. Towards the end she makes to leave but Clementine raises the one big laugh of the night when he asks, “Where are you going?” and she returns to sit in her spotlight, stage left, until it’s time to join in on the encore's final number, "I Won't Complain". He plays his debut album, At Least For Now, with quiet, concentrated relish, casting out great lines such as “I don’t drink but if I did this would be my favourite punch,” from the exhilarating “London”. And there’s a non-album number full of melodrama that leaves us hanging before the encore, with the superb pay-off line, “Silly boy, don’t you know that your girl was always going to leave/She wouldn’t have stayed even if you two were meant to be.”

At the end, as the lights rise, he and Liepvre stand and take the applause. Clementine’s chisel-jawed features are controlled but happy, somewhat unreadable. He’s a unique presence before an audience of the already converted. The pin-drop respectful silence at the Theatre Royal, hanging on his every small gesture throughout the entire one-hour-20-minutes concert, was a battle won from the start, and he worked it accordingly. I wonder, on that basis, whether Clementine can explode to a wider British audience or if he will remain a treat for the cognoscenti. I very much hope the former occurs as his talent and performing style would only be enriched by it.

Brighton Festival 2015

Overleaf: Watch Benjamin Clementine perform "Condolence" in the empty Sainte Geneviève Library in Paris

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