On the front of its program, Bijou quotes from a Baudelaire poem from which it derives its name and, apparently, its main character. From Les Bijoux: ‘La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur, Elle n’avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores.’ This passage describes the narrator gazing lustfully upon his lover, who is naked apart from her ‘tinkling gems.’ This method of seduction is alluded to by the illustrious Madame Bijou, the play’s main character. She also implies that she herself was Baudelaire’s muse. Perhaps more interestingly, however, is the deeper connection that Bijou shares with this poem. Les Bijoux is a part of a compilation by Baudelaire, entitled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). In its second edition, this compilation received the addition of Tableaux Parisiens (Parisian Scenes). This section detailed a sordid recollection of 24 hours in 19th century Paris, and its disillusionment with the city’s modernity and corruption of innocence are recognisable throughout Bijou.
The theatre is set out as a bar, with some audience members on the stage floor sitting at quaint tables with glasses of wine. It’s an interesting layout for the play, and although initially slightly distracting, this design works well with the interactive features of the play – Bijou sees all of the audience as bar-goers at her local, and treats them as friends and confidants. Her charm is at its utmost when she engages audience members, whether taking change from them, slyly teasing them, or requiring their assistance in undressing. I myself was lucky enough to be able to undo certain straps and laces for her as she decided to slip into something more comfortable.
Over the course of the night, Madame Bijou drinks, sings, and tells stories to us. Some are funny and charming anecdotes about her sexual experiences as a younger (and older) woman, and some are heartbreaking tales of her youth. A particularly powerful collection of stories recounts her molestation by a priest as a young girl – her exaggerated depiction of this scene becomes a motif throughout the rest of the play, and acts as a constant reminder of the hardships she’s faced.
This is one of the greatest strengths of Bijou: the titular Madame’s characterisation is nuanced and genuine. She has loved and lost, and has endured more hardships than can be mentioned, but above all of this, she remains brilliant and passionate and vibrant, and refuses to let herself be stunted by her past suffering. She still sings with soul, and cheekily flirts with patrons, and when the night is over, she’s reluctant to leave.
Alan Hicks is the pianist of the bar, and occupies multiple minor characters over the course of the play. His tunes are beautifully played, and his vocal duets with Chrissie Shaw (Madame Bijou) are the most enjoyable songs in the play. While his character(s) exist mainly to serve Bijou’s needs, his musicianship and subtle acting are invaluable to Bijou’s quality.
At times, perhaps, Bijou talks or sings for slightly too long. The perils of a play whose lines are spoken by almost entirely one character are clear – the one character needs to be on top of their game from start to finish. And, for the most part, the illustrious Madame Bijou is. There are just small sections which crop up here and there of perhaps a little repetitiveness or dullness. This is almost to be expected, however, when looking at the format of the play, and despite these momentary lapses, Bijou’s charming Parisian magic is enticing, nostalgic, and cosy fun.