BBC Proms: Tim Minchin, Kit and the Widow, Beardyman, BBC Concert Orchestra | reviews, news & interviews
BBC Proms: Tim Minchin, Kit and the Widow, Beardyman, BBC Concert Orchestra
BBC Proms: Tim Minchin, Kit and the Widow, Beardyman, BBC Concert Orchestra
The inaugural Comedy Prom is a triumph in a time of great need
It has been, we can safely agree, a truly terrible week. Art, culture, call it what you will, is unequal to the task of diagnosing a nation’s ills, let alone curing them. But on a night such as the inaugural Comedy Prom, it comes equipped with healing balm. This evening was maybe not perfect. There were wrinkles, little bits here and there that didn’t quite work. But the Saturday night that the BBC Proms gave over to the business of laughter could not have been more opportune. This is going to sound hokey, but comedy on this occasion brought its audience close to a state of grace. For which homage must principally be paid to the strange genius of Tim Minchin.
Minchin seemed to grumble in his opening address about the restrictions placed upon him by the powers that be: no swearing, no preaching about Jesus, which strips out half his act, and above all no jokes about riots. A glove-puppet fox from the BBC Three show Mongrels did gleefully allude to feral creatures in London who, for once, weren’t foxes. But that was more or less it re mindless thugs. Angrier and more topically inclined stand-ups would have felt gelded by such an edict. In fact it conferred a unity of tone and purpose on a show which, like an old-fashioned variety bill, had a little bit of everything: traditional cabaret, orchestral comedy, puppeteering, beatboxing and, bafflingly for Radio 3 listeners, mime.
As the lights went down the tone was set by Minchin, caught hiding in the audience under a grey wig and glasses and complaining, in the guise of a horrified classical critic, that the Proms have gone to the dogs since the days “when gay meant something good”. “Hosted by an immigrant!” he sang. “Is nothing sacred any more?” Not with said Australian host fondling Sir Henry Wood’s head or, at one point, bashing out some crazy chords on the famous organ - just because he could.
This is a hunch, but most of the audience won’t have come burdened with preconceptions about the Proms that needed deconstructing. When later on “the world’s leading Wagnerian soprano” Susan Bullock pluckily emerged from the groundlings during Kit and the Widow’s set, she was not greeted by the applause she’d trigger on a regular Prom night. No one had a clue who she was. (She did a lovely comic turn with her chest voice. Normal service resumes when she sings “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night.) Anyway, the Wagnerian slot had already been claimed by Sue Perkins (pictured above), who in the opening number popped up in the gallery behind the stage as a helmeted Valkyrie howling, unless one is very much mistaken, the non-Brünnhildean word “penis”.
So the night proceeded. As each act came on, there was a running joke about the oxymoron embedded in the idea of a Comedy Prom. Doc Brown (pictured below) guessed that a traditional rap would be too challenging for the Hall, so devoted his short act to another great British institution, Sir David Attenborough. Beardyman entered in a Mozartian frockcoat spouting posh Simon Callow vowels; no sooner had he started beatboxing than he thought better of it. But the most sustained riff on concert impropriety came when pianist Danny Driver and conductor Andrew Litton, two serious musicians revealing a splendid gift for comedy, parried and thrusted mismatching bits of Grieg, Gershwin and Rachmaninov in Reizenstein’s hilarious Concerto for Piano Against Orchestra. A lot of cheeks were aching after that.
Kit and the Widow sang from quite another page of the comic songbook, making merciless fun of Lord Lloyd Webber’s light fingers and, just to be even-handed, rounding on the melody-free hyperactively rhyming Sondheim too. “People who like Sondheim,” sang Kit Hesketh-Hervey, “always keep their buttocks clenched.” And that was just the opening line.
There were dips. Doc Brown’s act probably wasn’t right for such a huge room. I could have done without Mongrels, which was really there for the television audience who will see the Prom later this month. The Boy with Tape on His Face (pictured below) maybe tried to cram too much into a hectic charade performed to the William Tell Overture. Kit and the Widow’s “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud” by good old Flanders and Swann maybe didn't work as a round-the-piano singalong for 6,000 plus orchestra. Perkins pluckily filled in where required as singer, conductress and assistant pianist, but she’d be the first to agree this wasn’t really her gig.
And so to Minchin. He sang only a handful of songs in between his MCing duties, mostly old favourites. “F Sharp” was a pleasing musical joke from his bottom drawer about playing in one key but singing a semitone higher. “Lullaby”, in which a father feels increasingly uncharitable towards the baby he’s rocking to sleep, showcased Minchin’s signature gift for the po-faced intro and the ever so slightly satanic reveal. So did “Prejudice”, a song he’s all but given up performing but here rolled out one more time as a sop, one suspects, to a loyal fanbase in the Hall (who sang along to the chorus) and an army of potential recruits who will watch it at home. And it did the heart good to hear the Sondheimian triple rhyme “A tinge of the ginge in the minge” knowing that 24 hours later we’ll be back to floor-to-ceiling Britten.
Minchin made every effort to share the love. And rightly so. Kit and the Widow closed the first half with their glorious nod to the naffness of “Nessun Dorma”. We sang along with Bullock holding up placards with Puccini translated into a Punjabi menu card. The entire room warbled the inevitable “Vindaloo” in place of “Vincerò” as if their lives depended on it. Meanwhile the BBC Concert Orchestra, bulked up by a rocking rhythm section, more than earned their ovation, sparring wonderfully with Beardyman’s hypnotic beatbox loops and parping with incontinent gusto in the Reizenstein concerto. Above all they accompanied Minchin in a way that lifted his already thrilling songs onto an exhilarating new plane.
Click on the images below to enlarge:
- Kit and the Widow
- Danny Driver and Andrew Litton
- Tim Minchin
Comedy as an art form tends to trade in the trivial or the surreal or the anarchic. It’s absurd to suggest that this one evening tilted it on its axis. But it’s certainly the most profound experience I have had at an event designed merely to make me laugh. What finally sealed this Comedy Prom as a pretty much unadulterated triumph was its exemplary courage to cut the jokes. Before the interval Kit and the Widow frogmarched the audience into a hellish detritus-strewn dystopia such as we have been looking at aghast on news bulletins all week. It sounded like Kurt Weill’s worst nightmare. You waited for the pay-off to come but by the time the lyric had alighted on a trapped swan breathing its last, you knew it wouldn’t.
And then for his encore Minchin sang “Not Perfect”, a subtle and touching homily on the need to take care of what you’ve got: earth, country, house, body, brain. The song has always embodied his instinct to improve as well as amuse, but here more than ever it chimed very deeply indeed. Minchin padded off on his bare feet pursued by the applause not just of his audience but his fellow performers. This was his Hall.
- The Comedy Prom will be shown on BBC Two on 27 August at 9pm
- Listen again on BBC iPlayer to the Comedy Prom part one and part two
- My Summer Reading: Comedian Tim Minchin
- Read theartsdesk review of Tim Minchin at Hammersmith Apollo
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