Alistair McGowan is undoubtedly a brilliant impressionist. His highly successful career spans his work on the original Spitting Image and Dead Ringers, through to his BBC One sketch show The Big Impression in which he co-starred with Ronni Ancona. The latter, which aired between 2000 and 2004, won him a BAFTA in 2003. His speciality has been familiar faces (and of courses voices) from the world of TV entertainment and sport.
McGowan’s new solo show, The Piano Show, which he is currently touring, is something rather different. McGowan tells us he took up piano in his late forties and this show is devised round his performances of short, likeable piano pieces, interspersed with some of his best-loved impressions. His piano playing is impressively accomplished for someone who has only played for a decade.
He is a sensitive and graceful performer and is clearly passionate about music. His chosen composers are for the most part familiar, ranging from Handel and Chopin to Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass, although his introduction to each is rather stilted. With each he starts with the composer’s dates so it doesn’t surprise us when he admits both his parents were teachers. Part of the show’s quirkiness is his openness about the fact that he will make mistakes. In fact he makes very few and we warm to these moments of vulnerability. But McGowan is not a performer who is comfortable with self-revelation, and these moments of shared warmth are challenged when he shows nervy sensitivity to the annoyances of audience noise. And beyond this, because he only draws superficially on his own experience, the links between pieces and stand-up sometimes seem more strained than organic.
In his interludes of stand-up, McGowan tends to draw on his favourites from the past. He is still very funny as David Beckham and various football managers, and nails a few contemporary sports personalities, including a laugh-out-loud sketch in which he imagines Andy Murray lip-reading his Czech-speaking opponents. But the show makes it apparent how tricky an art impressionism is now that a comedian can no longer draw on a world of shared viewing habits. The glory years of The Big Impression were underpinned by the fact that we all watched television and most of us watched the same shows. McGowan’s natural home is BBC One and, dare one say it, Radio 4, and judging by the show’s audience at the Cadogan Hall, there is still a sizeable proportion of the adult population for whom this is also a shared frame of reference.
So we laugh at his Giles Brandreth and Monty Don, and there’s a roar of approval for his neat joke about Timpson’s and key workers. His only impression of contemporary politicians, however, is Boris Johnson. Admittedly his Boris is superb, but there is a sense that McGowan is more comfortable in a pre-millennial world.
Reviewed on 17 May 2022 and continues to tour