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Duke Special The Stage, a Book and the Silver Screen Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Fans will not be disappointed by this ambitious and impeccably produced music.

Chris White 2010

There aren’t too many artists who would attempt interpretations of two obscure solo projects by the legendary musical theatre duo Brecht and Weill and a Paul Auster-inspired concept album over the course of an entire career. But Northern Ireland-based singer-songwriter Peter Wilson, better known as Duke Special, has not only taken on this daunting triple challenge, but has also opted to release all three discs simultaneously.

Sumptuously packaged under the collective title of The Stage, a Book and the Silver Screen, what we get here is essentially a further development of Wilson’s established quirky but polished vaudeville template.

First up is Mother Courage and Her Children, featuring studio versions of the live performances he provided to accompany a recent National Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 anti-war play. Wilson’s compositions, using Brecht’s original words, aren’t individually that memorable but they deliver enough dramatic flourishes and intricate arrangements to make this a convincing exercise.

Huckleberry Finn, a five-track EP, is a lighter affair that neatly contrasts the first disc by covering songs from an unfinished musical by Kurt Weill. Based on Mark Twain’s masterpiece, it feels somewhat slight and only on the playful final track Catfish Song do we get any sense of the era and place.

The strongest, most cohesive of the trio of projects is The Silent World of Hector Mann. Mann was an obscure silent film actor who appears in Auster’s 2002 novel The Book of Illusions, and Wilson sent a copy of the book with the title of a Mann film to 11 fellow musicians, inviting them to pen a track inspired by what they had received.

The subsequent song cycle, although performed by Duke Special throughout, certainly benefits from using a variety of writers. The catchiest number is Neil Hannon’s Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club, crooned by the occasionally over-earnest Wilson with typical Divine Comedy silliness, and Ed Harcourt and Matt Hales also contribute. Yet some of the best moments here are from the less-heralded names, in particular Phil Wilkinson, whose Double Or Nothing successfully recreates the wonderful Old West melancholy of Burt Bacharach’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack.

Judged as a complete package, The Stage… is a mixed bag, but both existing Duke Special fans and those of kindred spirits like Rufus Wainwright and The Magnetic Fields will not be disappointed by this ambitious and impeccably produced music.

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