It looked like I was in for a rare evening of quickfire comedy as in rapid succession Frank Skinner, John Bishop, Milton Jones, Dara Ó Briain and Joe Brand took to the stage. Well, kind of. Actually, it was all courtesy of the vocal talents of Alistair McGowan whose UK tour The Piano Show reached the magnificent splendour of the Cadogan Hall last night. At the start McGowan confessed that it had been twenty years since he had regularly appeared on TV. Once a mainstay of the original Spitting Image (they didn’t ask him to be part of the reboot he mentioned ruefully) and with his own BBC prime time slot with The Big Impression he has partly reinvented himself by going back to playing the piano he started to learn and then abandoned as a child. His show, therefore, is an interesting hybrid of stand up comedy laced with copious impressions and some remarkably sensitive keyboard recital pieces. I’m not entirely sure that the concept is as unique as it is painted (didn’t Victor Borge do something similar albeit without the mimicry?) but I don’t think that mattered. Some of the audience had been waiting for two years for this moment – no prizes for guessing what had intervened in the meantime – and were ready to lap it up.
It’s largely a cosy affair admirably suited to the Classic FM brigade with a number of pieces featuring the work of Bach, Handel, Grieg, Chopin, Debussy and Satie played on a gorgeous Steinway (“you should have seen what they gave me in The Isle Of Wight”). But there are also less familiar names to consider. These include Cyril Scott (four hundred compositions and counting – now largely forgotten) and in a nod to the programme being otherwise all male, the equally less well-remembered Madeleine Dring. The pieces are predominantly short, indeed one lasted less than two minutes, and tend towards the calm, introspective and melancholic end of the spectrum. There are few musical fireworks although occasionally there are some teasing references that there are going to be. But that’s not to say that McGowan does not play well. He does and with sensitivity and flair within his chosen parameters. True he did get lost a couple of times in Dring’s Blue Air, but he gamely restarted and brought the audience onside with charm and self-deprecation, always a winning combination for a British crowd. My own favourite was his opening number, the introductory piece from Philip Glass’s Glassworks which set the tone for the evening brilliantly. My gratitude for reminding me what a great piece this is; I’m playing the whole thing through as I type.
Turning to the comedy it is as accomplished as ever and as an impressionist (as opposed to a impressionist composer) vocally spot on. McGowan knows his largely aging audience well and so Radio 4 presenters, TV gardeners, Bake Off and The Repair Shop feature heavily. There are also a number of nostalgic routines which are culled from his glory days. Here for instance were Posh and Becks being interviewed by Michael Parkinson and Jonathan Ross while various characters from the sporting world (he does a great Andy Murray) were heavily in evidence. McGowan wisely avoided his famous Jimmy Savile impersonation and largely steered clear of politics though he did “do” a very good Boris alongside his celebrated John Major. Even if some of the impressions do come across as slightly past their sell by date and seem a trifle shoe horned into the linking narratives they are all excellently done, and none are let to outstay their welcome.
On paper this is a concept that shouldn’t work but McGowan pulls it off and manages to do so with the minimum of smutty references and bad language. I particularly liked the way he dealt with latecomers, early departers, sweet rustlers and, that perennial bane of the concert hall, coughers. Never rude but refreshingly firm, especially on the subject of mobile phones, he helped to make the majority of the audience feel warm and secure and in tune with both his comedy and his musical talents. Yes, it was a revelation – McGowan has still got it comedy wise and has added to his kudos with the skills he exhibits at the keyboards creating a show with a unique flavour. He should really be given another TV series – and quickly too before another twenty years goes by.
Alistair McGowan’s Piano Show is on tour until early June – for remaining dates and venues click here
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