The Union Chapel in Islington is a working chapel, so it's a testament to the liberalism of some corners of the Anglican church that Tim Minchin - a committed sceptic - should be invited to play there. But in fact comedians perform at the Union Chapel on a regular basis (along with bands, artists and speakers) and it must be a wonderfully symbiotic relationship: artists get a fantastic, intimate space in which to perform, and the Union get a healthy income which no doubt helps towards the building's considerable upkeep.
Tim Minchin was the headliner on Saturday, but the whole night boasted an impressive line-up; Canadian stand-up Tony Law was on first, then Simon Day as his Fast Show idiot of a character Billy Bleach, and Arthur Smith MC's the evening.
Taking the stage in a white linen suit with knee length shorts, he was the sort of MC you want, as he clearly has decades' worth of material stored up in his head, and is hugely confident without you being left with the feeling that he really felt he should be on the bill proper. There is a huge stone pulpit right slap bang in the middle of the stage, which he had been told he Absolutely Must Not climb up to. He did, naturally. I mean, when they have dry ice coming out from underneath it, how could anyone resist?
I'd heard of the first act, Tony Law, but apart from the name ringing distant bells, I really didn't
know anything about him. Suffice to say I'll be trying to find out as much as I can now. His act, you'll be understandably dissatisfied to learned, is one that is really hard to put down in words. He hops from subject to subject, twists the ordinary into the extraordinary, and switches from accent to accent with apparent ease. Now he's frenetic and verbose, then he's speaking slowly and deliberately, like the voiceover from some late night infomercial. He talks about how to get the very best fight between a shark and a bear (a bear of your choice, he says, generously) and then sticks the microphone in his mouth to make a sound like a didgeridoo.
I might not be able to describe it all that well, but I know it was absolutely joyous to watch. He doesn't appear in the Edinburgh Fringe programme, which is a shame, but then again there is a rather large Fringe shaped hole in his gig listings at the moment...
Simon Day's character Billy Bleach is the default setting that many of his other characters on The Fast Show sprang from, but which can be seen in its purest form in the pub sketches, where he tried to help other punters, but ends up simply ruining their evening. If only he'd been rubbish, I could have made a wonderful link there... but alas he was good.
I'm assuming that he hasn't done stand-up in a while, because he seemed very nervous, and anxious to acknowledge that his new material took all of about five minutes - it did boast one of the best jokes though: "Barack Obama is the first black Presidential candidate in America; Jay Z is supporting Shakin' Stevens at Glastonbury. It's one step forwards, two steps back, isn't it?" His comedy is of an old-fashioned school, I'd say, and not entirely to my taste, but even with the prospect of Mr Minchin coming onto the stage, I definitely wasn't clock-watching.
When I saw Minchin last Autumn, I was pretty unwell, and didn't even blog it, let alone embrace him as my new favourite thing in the whole wide world. But those clever lyrics, that potty-mouth, that hair and those heart-breaking chord progressions were still there waiting for me when I was ready. And at about Christmas time, I was. Now I consider Tim one of my favourite artists as well as comedians, and have spent a good few hours getting to know some of his biggest fans on forum.
So I was particularly excited for this gig, as although I'd heard a lot of the songs from his two albums live, I didn't know them at the time, so this would actually feel like the first time. I was thoroughly anticipating - indeed hoping - for him to try new material out in advance of his Edinburgh run, but I've gotta say that my heart leapt at the words "If you really loved me..." which opened the show, and can be seen in full here. He also performed the lyrically-complex beat poem Mitsubishi Colt, and his Peace Anthem For Palestine.
When it came to the new stuff, he asked whether it was ok to play half-finished works. He hadn't meant it to be a rhetorical question so he had to take the silence as a sort of dubious consent. There weren't many whole new songs, but he finished with "Bears Don't Dig On Dancing" - clearly intended to be his new Canvas Bags, now that that particular issue is all sorted and that. He added a new verse to a song childishly and sublimely slamming Guardian comedy critic Phil Doast, though, (something that made me half want to give him a bad review...) and got us all singing "I love Jesus/I hate faggots". You could see a few people looking sheepishly around at the gorgeous ecclesiastical surroundings, but most joined in.
The set was not exactly what you'd call coherent - he clearly hadn't set in stone what he was going to play - but Minchin's winning persona (an indistinguishable mix, I suspect, of his actual personality and one he assumes on stage) meant that the audience happily stuck with him, even down to accepting Drowned as his encore, a song that, while still quirky, could never be described as comedy. He said he played it partly because he knew that the girls down the front wanted him to push the boundaries, and, charmingly, Minchin was more than happy to acknowledge his most committed fans who had bagsied the front row, throughout the set. When he was expressing annoyance at having to drink Day's beer, for example, a lady known to me as Shell threw him a bottle of water. "Thanks Sheila from Liverpool!" he said, and then added "I remember people from the internet."
This proved absolutely true when I met him after the gig, and he said hi without me even having to say who I was. He remembered that I'm a big Ben Folds fan, hummed Annie Waits, and had his photo taken with me:
(Lisa does stripes, I do checks!) For all his many talents, Tim (yes, it's Tim now; proper review is over!) just doesn't seem to be able to be big-headed or stand-offish, and instead stood and talked to people - some of whom he knew from many gigs gone by, others he didn't know at all - for ages. An actor, a singer, a comedian, a lyricist, a pianist and a gentleman, I've decided that it's my mission to find something that he sucks at...