Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Ten years ago, Pizza Express turned the underused basement of its King’s Road establishment into a cabaret spot, attempting to plug the gap left by the demise of Mayfair’s Pizza in the Park.
The rebirth of The Pheasantry as a treasured cabaret space helped propel Pizza Express’s live music ventures away from their solitary Dean Street jazz club to an operation which now spreads across multiple venues.
Wednesday’s edition of the four-night anniversary celebration started with a performer who would not be out of place in Dean Street. Sarah Moule performed a set of seven songs composed by Simon Wallace in collaboration with legendary lyricist Fran Landesman.
With Wallace accompanying, Moule’s smooth vocal delivery is perfectly suited to his and Landesman’s languid, soft jazz songs. Wallace and Landesman wrote some 300 songs together, and the selection on display here display the couple’s range; from a conjuror who perform any magic except bring back the past in A Magician’s Confession, to the perils of meeting your heroes in Stormy Emotions (inspired, Moule informed us, by Landesman’s daughter-in-law Julie Burchill meeting Morrissey).
Wallace remained on stage to accompany Pete Atkin, who delivered a set of songs from his collaboration of over fifty years with columnist and poet Clive James. James’s lyrics, Atkin noted, are always highly visual: from the story of encountering a fairground psychic in Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, to a treatise on ignoring the allure of stardom in Be Careful When They Offer You the Moon (not, Atkin noted wryly, a warning that the songwriting duo ever needed to heed themselves).
Atkin’s self-deprecatingly wry patter between songs immediately met his set feel warmer and more welcoming than Moule’s, and (to this long-time habitué of the venue, at least) epitomised the best of The Pheasantry as a result. It felt quite appropriate that he should end his set with Thirty Year Man, a number about a hard-working cabaret musician, and finally with Master of the Revels. This latter number, Atkin admitted, is written as more of an opener, setting out the singer’s stall as the ringmaster for an evening of revelry: here, it feels like a tribute to the venue personified.
It also kept the audience mood high for the evening’s third set, with the anarchic cabaret comedy of Kit and McConnel. Before the resurgence of the London cabaret scene precipitated by venues like the Pheasantry, singer Kit Hesketh-Harvey noted, “it was just me and Dillie Keane chipping away at the face.”
And the style of comic songs that Hesketh-Harvey and partner James McConnel perform is very much in the manner of Keane’s Fascinating Aida. From a destruction of piri-piri chicken restaurant chain Nando’s – set, of course, to Abba’s Fernando – to a spaghetti western pastiche about the delivery gig economy in The Man From Amazon, the set includes some raucous numbers that certainly lift the mood.
The set isn’t entirely successful, though. The number So Much Re-Learning To Do pastiches takes society’s growing attempts to include trans and non-binary people, and crafts it into a complaint about all the existing songs in the cabaret repertoire that have a gender slant somehow now being off-limits. Rather than being witty, it comes across as mean-spirited and belittling. Piers Morgan would love it.
Thankfully, such moments are scarce, and the duo, for the most part, concentrate on their strengths. From McConell improvising an entire piano étude based around an audience member’s name, to a supposed Afrikaans singalong that turns out to be a riff on a well-known mountain-climbing song by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kit and McConnel provide an upbeat, uproarious end to an evening celebrating one of London’s premier cabaret venues.
Reviewed on 13 November 2019. | Image: Louis Burrows Photography