CentralComedyConcertLive Music/GigMusicReview

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain 30 Plucking Years – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Directors: George Hinchcliffe and Kitty Lux

Reviewer: Gemma Corden

It sometimes feels as though there just isn’t enough joy in the world. Fortunately, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is here to redress that balance in this rambunctious show of skill, intelligence and wit.

At once brave and bizarre in equal measure, this is an offbeat experience with real heart and class. No musical stone is left unturned revealing the outfits’ inspired, and frequently surprising, interpretation – there’s Prince goes country, crooning Slade and Pinball Wizard re-imagined as a sea shanty. And who knew the ukulele could do French funk meets farmyard? The depth and variety that the eight artists produce from their instruments are truly exceptional, where numbers from Joni Mitchell to Wheatus are not merely given a new slant, but a refreshing resonance.

So much more than an amusing guilty pleasure, the Ukes (as they are affectionally known by an adoring fanbase) are true quality with an unrivalled ability to tap into the very thing that makes music special – moving an audience to sing, to move and to think.

And, importantly, to laugh. Wonderful physical comedy provided by the size of the cute, unassuming little instruments is worked to the hilt, supported by deadpan delivery, sharp ad-libbing and bang-on comic timing. Kraftwerk is an unexpected highlight – a melodic re-interpretation of The Model lends the electronic hit a strange urgency, only boosted by singer Richie Williams’ Liverpudlian accent.

There are some strong voices here. Founder member George Hinchliffe has a distinct Johnny Cash quality, while Leisa Ray renders the audience all aquiver whenever she opens her mouth and Jonty Bankes – what a whistler! Each member sings a solo in a diversity of sound that keeps the audience on its toes.

But this isn’t just about the music – each character (and characters they all are) is given a taste of the limelight and an opportunity to engage with the audience, which they do with aplomb. Never forced, it all feels like a jolly evening down at the pub (complete with dad jokes, courtesy of Dave Suich). But don’t let the self-effacing banter fool you – the Ukes are an impressively accomplished outfit, no doubt the result of 30 years of playing together. The comic chamber music format employed by the group, penguin suits and all – an effect amplified by the Symphony Hall setting – shows their intimacy off to the best advantage.

This show takes all the good bits of light entertainment and transforms the art into one historical relic worth salvaging – and celebrating. A part-time endeavour for most, one really can feel the love that goes into the act. When Suich lets his ponytail loose for a rendition of Nirvana’s It Feels Like Teen Spirit, one feels it’s a moment that will remain with the audience for years to come.

Constantly surprising and utterly charming. They return to the Symphony Hall in 2016 – don’t miss them.

Reviewed on 14 December 2015 | Image: Contributed

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