The unexpected release of Charlie Fink’s new single ‘Firecracker’ in April was surrounded by ambiguity. A vague link to the Old Vic website with the title Cover My Tracks, some dates of performance, and no other information, sparked a riot of questioning and speculation in the Fink fan community. The marketing that emerged over the succeeding few weeks did little to assuage the intrigue; fans knew that performances would take place at 10pm (a typical gig time) in a theatre (typical play venue), with an accompanying album (gig?) and a credited director (play?).
Consequently, I really did not know what I would be watching when I sat down in the Old Vic for the final performance of Cover My Tracks. I do know that I certainly wasn’t prepared for the hilarious, moving and unexpected journey I was taken on by Charlie Fink and lead actress Jade Anouka.
The format of the evening was unique, somewhere between ‘play’ and ‘gig’, but completely bypassing ‘musical’. The curtain opened to Fink sat on stage with a guitar, to be joined by Anouka, whose opening lines described the way the story should officially have ended, with the funeral of an unnamed character. David Greig’s outstanding script took the form of an open letter from Anouka to the dead figure as she looked back in time over the history of their relationship before deciding to search for her lost lover, via a series of dramatic (and sometimes comedic) monologues, with Fink’s softer musical interludes complimenting the story both structurally and tonally.
This initial dyadic separation broke down after the opening scene, as Anouka’s monologue moved from describing the funeral to a remembrance of her first meeting with the dead man, at which point it became apparent that Fink would be acting as well as singing. What followed was a beautiful duologue, charting the relationship between a hotel worker and a suicidal pop star, as they met, started a band and toured the country, before the eventual disappearance (and supposed suicide) of the singer.
A fairly simple premise, based around Anouka trying to find Fink’s character after his disappearance, unable to accept his suicide, was elevated by the care that went into the production. The use of songs from the album to foreshadow plot twists credited the viewers with a perceptive ability to appreciate the two mediums, and the simplicity of the staging, with Anouka stood and Fink sat in front of a microphone, meant that the production could be both minimal and ethereal. In particular, a monologue from Fink’s character addressed to Anouka from heaven could not have had the dignity or the power that it garnered without this minimalist context.
Rising star Jade Anouka excelled in her role, and seeing Charlie Fink try his hand at acting (after stints producing and writing film soundtracks) was delightful. The script was powerful, and the direction effective – it is only a shame that Cover My Tracks did not play for more than 12 performances.
For me, though, what made this production more than just a five-star play was its meta-theatrical value. The relationship between music and theatre was richly manipulated; both the album and the play could stand up alone, but the combination is what really made them. Indeed, while the songs may not represent a return to form for the former Noah and the Whale front man, the play definitely represented a return to the raw, personal form of his work that defined albums like The First Days of Spring. And Fink’s portrayal of the tortured artist, recovering from his brief fame as a one-hit wonder, seemed so close to home that the person I was with expressed a legitimate fear that the album constituted a suicide note. (Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case, and Fink is touring the album across the country, beginning with Latitude this weekend.)
As well as offering a richly rewarding standalone narrative, Cover My Tracks paid homage to its heritage with a number of embedded gems for Noah and the Whale fans. Those who remember final album ‘Heart of Nowhere’, an album defined by its character-driven story ballads, will recall the defiant titular track with the story of ‘Sarah’ who runs away from suburbia to try and be with her lover, promising that “I would follow you to the heart of nowhere”. There are definitely parallels between the character in the song, and Anouka’s angst-ridden, angry protagonist, who spends most of the play searching obscure locations where she thinks her lost lover may be, ignoring the overwhelming evidence for his suicide. It was only while researching this article that I chanced upon the ‘Cast and Creatives’ page of the Old Vic website, which gave identities to the otherwise nameless characters. Anouka’s character name? Sarah, of course.
The play was modest but powerful, socially and politically charged, intelligent and funny, but if I had to describe it in one word, it would have to be unexpected.
Charlie Fink is a genius, and Cover My Tracks a triumph. 5 stars without a doubt.