Review: BarberSoc’s “Vocal Eclipse of the Heart”

Words by Ed Stephenson 

Only the merest shred of audience etiquette holds me back from singing along to the opening number of BarberSoc’s newest show “Vocal Eclipse of the Heart”. I definitely don’t hold back from an uncoordinated shimmy in my chair, though. Their rendition of “Toxic”, arranged by Anna Natlacen and Lara Dodd, is so tightly crafted and euphoric that it’s tempting to join in even if you aren’t a long-time Britney aficionado like myself.

It’s a giddy start to a night filled with love songs of every kind addressed to every sort of subject worth writing one for. Case in point: the follow up to “All That Jazz”, featuring Anna’s assured, theatrical vocals, is an inspired “Stacy’s Mom”, delivered with all the drama and pathos it deserves. The group’s vocal stylings work equally well in its smaller outfits; in fact, the fewer vocalists onstage allow the audience a more intimate view into the mechanics of their performance, as the percussive climax of “Edge of Glory” turns to its distinct advantage. Other highlights of the first act include a genuinely heart-warming “God Only Knows” from the women of Pitch Please and Julia Luces’ powerful performance as soloist for “Nobody’s Side”.

The second act is equally crammed with talent. The group Duly Noted are back – special mention to Tristan Yellachich’s eloquent compèring – and they shine in back-to-back performances of “I Want It That Way” and “I Love A Barbershop Song”, displaying their deft humour and impressive genre range. The high point of my night, however, arrives towards its end. It starts with Lara’s arrangement of Vienna Teng’s “Hymn of Axciom”, a poignant, sinister paean to humanity by the various data-mining devices and services we use every day. The stage is darkened, the singers’ faces illuminated by the smartphones they hold with a reverence more commonly reserved for votive candles. Haunting, unexpected harmonies ripple against one another, swelling to a moment of pure, spellbound breathlessness. Then I need to get my breath back quickly, because the infectious confection of “Love On Top/Finesse”, arranged by Larisse Moran, requires more ridiculous shimmying in my seat.

A cappella performance is a particularly vulnerable thing to do on a stage; without instrumental backing, singers’ tiniest fluctuations in pitch and tempo can unravel the musical fabric of a song. The excellent work of the night’s arrangers – all seven of them, an unprecedented number for BarberSoc – serves to mitigate this danger, building sound with a verve and originality which leaves pieces seeming custom-made for the group. But even when things get a little ragged around the edges – as in a very new performance of Toto’s immortal classic “Africa” – the chemistry and camaraderie between the singers is so audible in every note that mistakes are hardly noticed.

In the end, it’s clear that the showcase’s theme of love is entirely apt. Perhaps the closing, eponymous number captures it best, with its exuberant layering of sound and perfectly melodramatic staging and choreography (executed with vast panache by legend, icon and star Zelda Winestock): the members of BarberSoc have so much love for each other, and are so in love with what they’re doing. In “Vocal Eclipse of the Heart”, they’re so generous with that love that you can’t help but feel yourself included in their radiant energy, long after the final note fades.  

Pulp Editors