Live streamed from the Phoenix Arts Club, 2020 Hindsight with Dusty Limits and Michael Roulston takes the idea of a musical retrospective and places it against the backdrop of a pandemic year.
Cabaret performer Dusty Limits, with pianist and songwriting partner, Michael Roulston, look back over a 15-year career. They pull together a set that not only seems to pre-empt the last 12 months, but also takes aim at a divisive political landscape.
In other hands, this could all stack up to be a bit of an evening. But with Limits and Roulston, the satirical verve keeps the humour dark, but fiendishly enjoyable. We begin with a tweaked version of a Petula Clark classic. Lockdown – with amended lyrics – examines the boredom of quarantine where “everything happenson Zoom”’. Dusty Limits’ persona – uncensored and provocative – stitches together influences from Portishead to Noel Coward. A highlight of the show is when we are taken back to 1952, with Limits’ cover of There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner. This is Coward taking pot shots at a post-war hyperbole that, rather than acknowledging the collective trauma of war, insisted that society marched forward – potentially into nuclear Armageddon. The crispness of delivery, insisted on by Coward’s lyrics, suits Dusty’s voice perfectly. Coward’s cautionary tale neatly dovetails with Limits’ acerbic asides – this is cabaret past merging with cabaret present, and it brings out the best in both.
Despite having to perform to an online audience (Limits’ quip about waiting for thunderous applause is a great running gag), 2020 Hindsight endeavours and succeeds in making that emotional connection with its audience. After a series of laugh-out-loud songs, there is a substantial gear shift with After the Rain. Written in response to the ongoing homelessness crisis, the song’s aching sadness ends with Limits turning away from the camera. The jokes stop, just for a moment.
While the songwriting of Limits and Roulston has typically examined the nihilism and ennui of modern life, it is striking how many of the songs mirror the experience of living through a pandemic. In The 5th of April (no prizes for guessing when the song was written), Limits ponders the life of a creative. The good intentions give way to procrastination. The new material never gets written. Another day gone. It is strikingly familiar to us in 2021, but Limits and Roulston refuse to moralise. The satire gives way to broader laughs, with a song discussing the trials and tribulations of lockdown, with Rusty’s less-than-ideal flatmate. The self-explanatory Time on Your Hands segues into Dusty layering on the innuendo while discussing a friend’s husband. Married, but “buying shirts in Milan ‘ – there’s little room for misinterpretation here.
The style of the show not only intersects with familiar markers – you can recognise hints of Julian Clary’s early comedy here – but Limits and Roulston also apply indie influences which gives their work an identity all its own. In a revamped cover of Pulp’s Help the Aged, the satire takes inspiration from Swift (Jonathan not Taylor), in suggesting how an elderly population can be managed. With Limits’ most macabre jokes, this song takes on far more meaning, when considered in the context of the past 12 months.
The show dives into political issues frequently, and how they have impacted our ability to negotiate a global pandemic. It provides the light and shade needed for a performance focusing on such a difficult and, as yet unresolved, subject. But finishing with the beautifully melancholic Heaven or Hell (or Highgate) Dusty encourages us to lean into the opportunity to ponder the larger questions. This is not about finding answers, but examining the world through a darkly mischievous gaze. Comedy with a sense of purpose – this is satire at its best.