Review: Theatre Royal – ‘Portraits’

You could probably produce an accurate description of Theatre Royal’s new album, Portraits, without referencing a single note of the melodies, a single word of the lyrics. The front cover artwork itself does a great deal of the work for you.

A broad, skeletal hand reaches out to the viewer, concealing the blurred face of the elderly figure. The hand is withered and wrinkled, testament to a life long lived – hard lived. An octagonal gold ring clasps itself around the middle figure, testament to some past when the boldness of the jewellery once matched that of its wearer – a time long past.

It’s all shot through a misty blue filter, the face itself little more than a haze behind the stark fact of that aged hand eclipsing so much of the image. Sadness exudes from this photograph – a sense of the intangibly distant, the starkness of the present (does what is resemble what was once imagined would be?) and skin crumpled over the years, serving as a daily reminder of hard graft and endeavour.

And then you listen to the album itself.

Portraits has a world weariness to it. Take ‘Lift Our Heads’ from midway through the album. It’s a classic Theatre Royal song – sounding anthemic while containing bitter truths; in this case coming with a wonderfully wheezy harmonica support. “Can’t seem to find my own way back to me” runs one of the lines in that song.

Later, in the title track, there’s a resolute final line of “don’t follow me: can’t you see I don’t know which way to run”.

The record is full of a sense of loss and being lost. It’s found in the heavy-on-the-simile ‘Splinter’ with its gorgeous, shimmering piano accompaniment: “In time, the ties you bound unwind/time runs round your mind/like a splinter pushing way deep down inside.” 

And even at the close of the album there is no let up. ‘Incidental Friend’ opens with a question, betraying another loss: “where did you go to, my incidental friend?” Throughout the whole album, there’s that feeling that it might all be a bit too late to make amends.

The word “try” appears throughout Portraits: “and you try, yes you try to fill the void” (‘TV Blind’), “and when I try, I can’t solve anything” (from the impassioned, heart on sleeve ‘Lift Our Heads’) and “do you think I should try or should I just disappear?” (the lilting ‘My Dear’ with its gentle waltz-time and parping brass backing).

And with it, there comes a feeling of absolute defeat. See, for example, the opening line of resignation from the otherwise sing-a-long sounding ‘Tomorrow Now’: “I’m packing away the hopes that we made”. And the first lines from ‘Callow’, delivered over a relentless thudding bass motif, ring loudly with an audible what’s-the-point-shrug:

If this is nothing, then I want nothing at all
why do you have to have something
for when the curtain starts to fall.

It’s a nihilistic sentiment that returns in the soothing, off beat melody of ‘Together We’re Alone’ with the plea of “so take me back to nowhere for there’s nowhere else I’d rather go”.

But in the midst of all this, there are glimmers of light. The first song from the album, ‘A Marvellous Death’, provides a more optimistic take on the ageing process than the songs it precedes; its protagonist growing old as disgracefully as possible: “moving fast when you’re told to slow”. It bounces along with Robbie Wilkinson’s guitar jabbing away, driving the action on and on.

Later ‘Count Your Blessings’, with its Clearlake-ish purity of delivery, may start with a long list of woes and “unluckiness”, more typically found elsewhere on the album, but by the end, lead singer, Oliver Burgess lists a series of bon mots to help see you through with the tenderest of deliveries over a deliciously warm, twanging guitar accompaniment:

If all else fails and you find that you are numb.
Let down your sails and you might just move along.
Let the dust settle; separate the curtains drawn.
The day won’t comfort you if you think you’re in the wrong.
Uproot the ups and down, bury them both underground.
Forget all that you’ve found and start again.

‘Upside Down’ also offers some attempts at addressing the doom, despondency and general despair. Over an accompaniment heavily recalling Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, it offers a forthright assessment of someone’s situation: “You’ve been standing on your head and wandering why the world was upside down” and “time wound on but you were busy doing other things”. Though there are no answers, no solutions offered, just the pace of the song alone suggests it’s time slow down, reassess and consider a new way of doing life.

And then there’s ‘Kasher’, a kind of part-Kes, part-‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ nursery rhyme/coming of age story about a boy who nurses an injured jackdaw back to health, much to the inevitable disapproval of all the story’s adults. By the end of the song the boy realises that they no longer need one another; it’s time for both to move on – however painful that may be for them both.

It is, perhaps, an odd song to fit into the general theme of world weariness elsewhere on the album. But the ideas of loss and difficult choices do find their home here; it’s as if this is a flashback, taking us back to a point in an old man’s life where innocence and naivety was first lost, where he made his first, tentative steps into the big, wide scary grown up world. And of course, Jackdaws are members of the crow family, the folkloric harbingers of death.

Portraits is yet another finely honed album from Theatre Royal. Assertive and confident in its sound while demonstrating that characteristic sense of loss and searching common to many a song from this band, it’s an excellent addition to the band’s catalogue.

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Buy your copy of Portraits from Bandcamp

Find out more about the history of Theatre Royal and many, many other Medway bands in my book, Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway (Cultured Llama).

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