Performer and writer Chrissie Swan was inspired by this photograph, by famed Hungarian photographer Brassai, to delve into the life and history of the mysterious Madame Bijou. We do not know how much is true, but we believe the stories of her loves and pains.
The show is, in essence, the reminiscing of an old woman who wants to remember the days of dancing and beauty. At times she seems completely lost in the memories, believing that she is still the woman who danced for rich men, and was showered with jewels and attention.
Bijou is a reflection on the nature of growing old. The glory of the past and the reality of today is always at odds. The old woman wears her jewels as ever-present memories of who she was. She still dresses like a dancer, or perhaps a French prostitute. Yet the decadence has worn into decay.
The structure of the show reveals her descent into dementia. It wanders back and forth through time as she forgets. We slowly discover her full story, but questions remain. It is fun to piece together the puzzle over a glass of wine, sitting at our table on the stage after the show. The space is set up with a few tables at the front, with normal theatre seating behind. I highly recommend getting there early so you can nab the table seats, to be most immersed in the 1920s cabaret experience.
The relationship between the two people on stage is endearing. Bijou (Shaw) is the focus, but pianist Alan Hicks is a vital support. He humours her, like a parent with a child. He plays her favourite songs, and sometimes sings with her. We get the impression he's heard all these stories and songs many times before, but he cares for her, so he is kind. Hicks brings a delightfully dour humour to the character of the pianist.
The thing I most enjoyed about this show was Bijou's her sexuality. I am used to cabaret, used to its style, the coquettishness, the teasing. But when these same moves are enacted by a woman decades older than any other cabaret performer I've seen, it shocks you into questioning. We wonder things like, what is her experience, as an old woman enacting a typically young woman's role? Why is it amusing now, when if she was 40 years younger, it would be arousing?
I wonder these things during the French and German songs, as I get lost in the languages. I can follow the story, but I can't enjoy the jokes in the songs; I wouldn't even know there were jokes, except for the few audience members chuckling. The majority is in English though, so we monoglots can follow along.
Chrissie Shaw is a delightful performer. I so enjoyed this experience – the journey of Bijou's story, and all the humour and interest Shaw brings to the character and shares through her story and performance.