Performer: Peter Gill
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Master-satirist Tom Lehrer is, in the opinion of the incomparable Randy Newman, as good a lyricist as any in the second half of the 20th Century, but there is a problem with performing his work. His songs, many of them very short, don’t lend themselves to extended improvisation or complicated arrangements or anything much except Lehrer-style pointed-delivery-with-piano-accompaniment. So we have Politically Incorrect, with Peter Gill doing the Tom Lehrer thing very well, but inadvertently reminding us that Tom Lehrer did it even better.
Tom Lehrer was a phenomenon. A Harvard Mathematics prodigy, he took time out from his studies and his university teaching career to perform and record in various bursts: as a student in 1953, a series of high-profile concerts in 1959, songs for the American version of television’s That was the Week that Was in the 1960s and then sporadic engagements until retirement from performing about 1970. Official figures claim he performed only 109 concerts and wrote only 37 songs,although that surely does not allow for the songs he wrote for children’s educational programmes.
Peter Gill performs 27 songs in his programme which leaves little room for excluding duds, so it’s a good job Lehrer didn’t write duds. Tom Lehrer addicts – and it was good to note from bar conversations in Wakefield that there are plenty of them – will have missed Lobachevsky and It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier, but generally, the Lehrer oeuvre is here, in good health and well performed.
The accomplished and versatile Peter Gill undertakes various themed shows for Beyond Eternity Productions, notably a Noel Coward tribute, and wisely he does not attempt a re-creation of a Lehrer performance, complete with what was advertised 50-odd years ago as “Mr. Lehrer’s soporific spoken commentary”. Gill is as self-deprecating as Lehrer, fairly informative and gently amusing though devoted to a laborious running gag about Huddersfield, depicted as the start of the badlands.
Lehrer rejoiced in unflattering reviews such as “plays the piano acceptably”. In fact, he played it much better than that, and so does Peter Gill. He also puts over the songs with point and clarity – no small achievement as Lehrer was not averse to tongue twisters – though his delivery overall is blander than the sardonic original.
With an audience of Lehrer devotees, it is impossible to reproduce the frisson of shock and delight that went through 1959 audiences when a sweet waltz sang out, “All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon”, to be followed by “poisoning pigeons in the park”. However, Gill does enough to remind us that songs such as Bright College Days, We Will All Go Together and Christmas Carol are small masterpieces that nail perfectly the idiosyncrasies of life in the United States.
Tom Lehrer has not performed for over 40 years and is now 87, so don’t hold your breath for a UK tour. In his absence, Politically Incorrect is a thoroughly enjoyable reminder of an unclassifiable genius.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed