Music and Lyrics: Tom Lehrer
Adaptor and performer: Adam Kay
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
There’s a fine line to tread when producing a show based on a much-loved performer. Fans will already know every detail about the performer’s life and back catalogue and will want to revel in the nostalgia without being weighed down with facts they already know. Newcomers to the canon, though, expect some context to perhaps discover a new area of interest.
Adam Kay’s tribute to veteran musical satirist Tom Lehrer never gets that balance quite right. Kay takes a quick poll at the start of the show asking how many of the audience are Lehrer fans, and when a good 80 percent raise their hands, he declares he can dispense with the opening 20 minutes. The problem is, for those of us with only a fleeting knowledge of Leher, that assumption leaves us frequently bemused and lost.
To his credit, Kay does follow a chronological approach that tells of Lehrer’s move from Harvard University to recording studio, via a short-lived live performance career. For the fans in the audience, it is almost a sacred text being recited, each fact or song title welcomed with a knowing chortle or affirmation.
Kay, however, has taken some liberties with the text, acknowledging the songs are ‘as old as many of you’. References that would have been contemporary and risqué in the 1950s now updated to reference Donald Trump, ISIS and X Factor.
Kay’s performance does little to draw newcomers in. His piano playing is somewhat uneven –a heavy foot on the pedal and a few flourishes at the higher end of the keyboard drown out some of the complex lyrics, not helped by a muddy sound mix. For what, on paper, is an intimate evening, there’s further issues in this particular stop on the tour of the performer being hidden behind the prop of the grand piano lid obscuring his face for a large section of the audience.
There are many in the audience who will disagree with this review and who lapped up every second of the performance, and that is commendable. Lehrer holds a cherished place in their hearts and the opportunity to hear his work performed live a rare treat. However, for theatre to work well it needs to be accessible and inspire us to think and reflect. Here, the overwhelming feeling is of a lazy production that offers little to convince those of us unfamiliar with his back catalogue to head home and delve deeper.
Reviewed on 16 February 2017 | Image: Contributed