Writer/performer: Adam Kay
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
In the grand tradition of the satirical comedy song, Tom Lehrer stands tall, despite his professional performance career being a comparatively short one in the middle decades of the 20th Century. He officially retired from performing live in his thirties, choosing instead to spend his time teaching his favoured academic subjects – mathematics on the East coast of the USA, music theatre on the West. His albums and songs, though, live on.
Comedy writer and performer Adam Kay, whose own material employs a similar mix of satire, smut and wordplay that typify the archetypal Lehrer song, has constructed an entertaining evening that roughly sticks to a chronological approach to recounting the writer’s life and works. From his early days as a child prodigy who started studying at Harvard at the age of 15, Kay has unearthed some lesser known works to mix in among the popular and more instantly recognisable works. The teenage Lehrer’s riff on a (now thankfully forgotten) Bing Crosby song, in which a crooner talks about holding his lover’s hand before revealing that, gruesomely, it has been chopped from his victim’s murdered corpse, shows that the combination of humour and shock value were there from the start.
Rather than treating Lehrer’s works as fossils to be unearthed and revered, Kay has rather bravely attempted to update some, removing or tweaking references that had greater satirical relevance in 1950s America than in 2010s Britain – a process he compares to restoring a stately monument rather than “when they remade Alfie with Jude Law”. And for the most part, he is successful. Both Pollution, which he adorns with extra verses about infectious diseases, and National Brotherhood Week, an anti-racism song which receives a root and branch update to befit a world where the news is dominated by Brexit, immigration and UKIP, illustrate how well Kay’s own comedy temperament suits Lehrer’s works.
Not that Kay is unfamiliar with appropriating and amending Lehrer – as part of a repeated tease of Lehrer’s most famous number, The Elements, he performs two self-penned variations: one, based on his work as a doctor, detailing the most frequently prescribed drugs on the NHS, and another for Radio 4’s The Now Show running through British prime ministers in order. But the audience who are here for some of Lehrer’s own material are not disappointed, with performances of Be Prepared, I Got It From Agnes, The Masochism Tango (again, with additional updated verses for today’s less inhibited audiences) and, as an encore, The Vatican Rag all proving the mastery of Lehrer, half a century on.
Kay’s piano playing is not what one might call precise – several numbers finish with attempted flourishes that do not quite come off – but his enthusiasm is palpable. One can imagine that Lehrer – should he ever come out of retirement long enough to watch his own songs being performed – would approve.
Reviewed on 19 April 2016 | Image: Contributed