Just why Deborah Conway and her husband Willy Zygier are cherished as Australian music royalty is evident when you see Songs from the Book of Life. It is an 80-minute narrative concert featuring a cavalcade of life experiences, as outlined by Conway, along with eight songs.
She goes back to her childhood when her parents used to fight continually and when a career guidance counsellor advised her to become a travel agent. At 18, Deborah decided she wanted to be an actor and at 20 she became the lead singer in a band, something that did not please her lawyer father. Her eight years in Do-Ré-Mi was quite the ride, before Virgin Records pulled the plug and decided she was destined for a solo career. Only what they had in mind didn’t fit Conway’s narrative.
Her rebelliousness has been a hallmark of her career. She doesn’t run with the pack. She believes in substance and forethought and that is reflected in the lyrics in many of her songs. So it is when she weaves tales of her 40 years in show business and the influences in her life. Her father was quite some piece of work. She loves her mother dearly. She has lived the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle, but then in her 30s she met guitarist Willy Zygier, the love of her life. The pair is clearly great together.
As Conway is waxing lyrically, sometimes with humour, at other times with bravado and self-deprecation, Willy is in the background. But then when the music comes to the fore, he is often alongside her, impressing in his own right with his command of the stringed instrument and on backup vocals. Sometimes Conway, too, has a guitar in hand. In the background are often visuals, representing story elements, including family snaps.
There are also interviews from her pop star days. In tandem is a facial mock-up, in which she sarcastically responds to some of the inaner questions posed and remarks made to her. A hallmark of Conway is her unflinching honesty and that is there for all to see. She describes in detail what she went through with her bipolar father and what it has been like dealing with three teenage daughters. She is proud of her Jewish heritage and how important that connection has been in her life, including judgment day, the Day of Atonement.
Musically, Conway remains irresistible, as soulful and captivating as ever. Never mind whether you are familiar with her material, her vocal prowess and dexterity have few peers. And even though she mockingly pushes back on the hit song for which she is best known, the show wouldn’t be complete without It’s Only the Beginning. Songs from the Book of Life is directed by Michael Kantor and choreographed by Stephanie Lake, with video design by Nick Roux. Strands of memory, as in pages from the book of life, are the idea behind the set, the work of Chloe Greaves.
The show, at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until Saturday, 7th October coincides with the release of Conway’s autobiography, aptly named Book of Life.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Womadelaide 2018 line-up – music news
- Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook (Arts Centre Melbourne) – narrative concert review
- First Two Pages of Frankenstein (The National) – music review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.