Christine and the Queens Presents Redcar review – heartbreak, passion and a pile-up of props

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The pipes of the Royal Festival Hall’s enormous organ provide the backdrop for this one-off London performance by the French artist often known as Christine and the Queens, currently going by the name Redcar. The instrument’s visual grandeur adds gravitas to a stage set strewn with plaster-cast saints and Virgin Marys. Although the devotional candles are beautiful, a giant red rendition of the archangel Michael and a suit of armour surrounded by flowers border on kitsch. It’s all in keeping with the supplicating, chivalrous bent of the singer’s latest album, Redcar les Adorables Étoiles, released a fortnight ago.

This medievalist fantasia is interrupted by neon lighting, road cones and a TV that plays unexplained footage of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team or wild horses running. More intriguingly, a large moving camera mounted on an articulated neck takes up centre stage. It spies on Redcar and mirrors his movements. Eventually, Redcar wonders aloud if this robot is an angel. Later, he will cuddle it like a pet. At other times he interacts with a blue sickle moon, beseeching it directly then using it as a swing.

What is going on? Quite a lot, not all of it clear, although Redcar provides narration in English throughout with a mixture of passion and tongue-in-cheek humour. This show is not “a spectacle” but “a psycho-magical ritual”, he declares. It is both magnificent and baffling by turns. It’s fitting that he has been announced as curator of the Southbank Centre’s 2023 Meltdown festival.

Previous incarnations of CATQ have foregrounded the singer’s dance moves as key aspects of the Queens’ slinky electro-pop offering. On 2018’s Chris, the artist then known as Chris explored a more masculine identity to a funked-up soundtrack laced with desire. Last August he officially updated his pronouns to he/him.

When Redcar – named for the red cars he kept seeing after his mother’s death in 2019 – greets the audience, he leans on a walking stick, the result of a knee injury in September that delayed his latest album and postponed gigs in Paris and London. His moves remain restricted but lyrical. He struggles against a ribbon binding his wrists and wriggles out of the bottom half of a wedding dress on the catchy, emotional Ma Bien Aimée Bye-Bye; writhes around in torment on Les Âmes Amantes. His physicality is riveting, cycling through masculine tropes as he adds and removes bras, waistcoats, jackets, shirts, hats and a set of angel’s wings. Eventually he emerges as a knight wearing a breastplate of armour, with quite another kind of large organ strapped on to his groin.

‘What is going on? Quite a lot’: Redcar at the Royal Festival Hall. Photograph: Gaëlle Beri

The pent-up energy from Redcar’s injury seems to have been channelled into this show’s theatricality – a profusion of items, references, icons, themes and props that expand and sometimes overshadow the ideas on the album. Redcar les Adorables Étoiles – played more or less in its entirety tonight in playback, with live singing – was a document of heartbreak and loss. It was written in the aftermath of a significant breakup and his mother’s sudden death, and inspired in part by Angels in America, the Tony Kushner play about the Aids era.

Redcar’s anguish seemed to have been channelled into a series of chivalrous narratives (La Chanson du Chevalier), with a longing to be reunited with the beloved – and the stars above – as its overarching themes. The courtly supplications of Redcar… are redolent of Dante, who frequently addressed an idealised, absent love called Beatrice (La Vita Nuova, Redcar’s 2021 EP, was named after one of Dante’s works). A more recent parallel might be Kanye Wests’s 808s and Heartbreak, run through a Joan of Arc filter.

Live, this heartbreak remains. “I love you!” declares a sample that Redcar triggers over and over, his need to hear those words becoming increasingly painful. But this show seems to be more about rebirth, the value of imagination and Redcar’s attempts to ascend to heaven.

Sometimes the confusion is fruitful. “J’ai autant besoin de toi,” he sings (“I need you so much”). On the album it seems directed at a lover or his mother. Tonight, it is sung to the sinister robot camera, who seems to comfort him. At other times it’s harder to winnow out meanings. Are the muffled, disembodied voices angels? God?

Throughout, though, Redcar’s voice remains a thing of wonder, its elastic range spanning falsetto, a pellucid alto and more guttural exclamations. Amplified by the Royal Festival Hall sound system, these 13 songs sound bigger and bolder than they did previously. Rien Dire (“Without Saying”) is the album’s secret banger, a delicate R&B track that plays on how lovers don’t need to say much.

The flipside could be that the couple leave too much unsaid. Even though Redcar declares that this show is an “alchemisation of the spirit, the soul and the flesh”, about “transmutation”, a few elements remain unresolved – at least to me. Does Redcar make it to heaven? Who is the robot camera really? There is no questioning the visceral sincerity of Redcar’s heroic pupation from one form to another. But the pile-up of knights, angels, masks and stage props sometimes seem to impede the process, rather than assist it.

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