True Romance: Electric Penelope with the Scottish Romance Orchestra
The Maltings Theatre & Cinema, Berwick-upon-Tweed
16th November 2013
If you were expecting to see the Electric Penelope who strutted her stuff in sequinned hot-pants at her sell-out show last year, you would have been in for a surprise.
Saturday’s show was altogether a more grownup affair. A starry backdrop, glamorous evening dresses and a 15-strong orchestra combined to recreate the mood of the jazz era as Anna Emmins (Electric Penelope) sang her way through classic jazz standards and songs taken from her debut album, ‘New Day’.
The local singer/songwriter appeared almost over-awed by the event at first, taking a little while to gain control and assert her right to be there. The opening numbers were restrained and lacked the carefree abandon with which Emmins usually performs.
But after this tentative start Emmins rose to the challenge of singing with an orchestra. The beautiful new arrangements of her own songs by Tony Kime, founder of the acclaimed Scottish Romance Orchestra, gave a fuller scope to the originals, polishing them so that they shone, yes, in a more romantic way. Sweeping strings were allowed full rein and they did a fine job of transporting the audience into a froth of Doris Day nostalgia. But this gloss didn’t work every time; the raw edges of ‘Scorpion’ were worn too smooth, the lyrics demanding something darker to convey the emotion of the song.
Gently meandering through the repertoire with musical director Mike Hardy, Emmins really hit her stride with ‘Mad About the Boy’ and ‘Willow Weep for Me’, both showcasing her warm tones and ability to inhabit a song. There was a hiccup along the way with ‘Get Happy’ but Electric Penelope’s naturally funny and engaging stage presence allowed her to shrug it off and carry on like a typical pro.
It’s no surprise that hiccups happened. Emmins only had one run-through with the orchestra due to the logistical problem of getting everyone in the same room at the same time. It’s a testament to her innate musicality that she managed to pull a show of this technical complexity off. The experience clearly stretched and exhilarated her in equal measure.
“As a member of a band there’s the sense that you’re all in it together, there’s a shared responsibility” Emmins said. “But when you’re fronting an orchestra it feels as if you’re on your own; they’re busy doing their own thing. You feel the pressure of the buck stopping with you. It’s terrifying.”
Electric Penelope is and will always be an artist in a state of evolution and exploration, picking things up and trying them on for size. Did True Romance fit her? Yes, but I think she’s more comfortable when things don’t need to fit quite so well, where there’s wriggle room for spontaneity. The collaboration with the Scottish Romance Orchestra, while delighting the audience, was a reflection of Emmins’s need for change and experimentation. Now that it’s done, now that it can be ticked off her musical ‘to do’ list, I suspect Emmins will happily continue on her quest to seek out new ways to express herself through song.
And no doubt we’ll happily continue to keep her company on her journey.