Tuesday, January 19, 2010

James Sherwood at the Piano, Etcetera Theatre - 12th January 2010

Written for the British Comedy Guide

Musical comedy has always been something of a maligned sub-genre, and it is fair to say that while there are few things in the world of entertainment worse than bad comedy, bad musical comedy is one of them. But there have always been masters of the genre, from Flanders and Swann through Tom Lehrer and The Ruttles to Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey, and when it is done as brilliantly as that, it is, for me, one of the greatest joys to be found on this here planet.

So where does James Sherwood sit in this wide-ranging musical comedy league? Well, much higher than his appearance in a small room above a pub (however well respected, as Etcetera undoubtedly is) would suggest, for a start. And - as is so important these days - he does have a little something that makes his particular strain of comedy song unique: while his peers use music to discuss God, life, and the universe, Sherwood turns the magnifying glass inwards, and instead dissects, examines and generally mocks the absurdities of music itself.

No cow is too sacred here - the 'inconsistencies' in Blake's lyrics to Jerusalem get a particular kicking - and all types of music from Lionel Ritchie to Guns N' Roses and U2 are stripped down and shown to be grammatically or mathematically lacking. You might imagine that Sherwood would be a little more forgiving when it comes to something as trifling as a glorified nursery rhyme like A Windmill In Old Amsterdam, but you'd be wrong. It just isn't realistic - who wouldn't be freaked out by a little mouse with clogs on?

These analyses are such fun for a couple of reasons: firstly, Sherwood is necessarily a brilliant musician who casually turns his hand to everything from The Beatles to Beethoven without hesitation, and secondly he has an obvious love of language that means that he is a just a joy to listen to. When discussing the big band classic The Way You Wear Your Hat, for example, he dismisses the central question with the line: 'Isn't there just one way to wear a hat? Atop the head... as the milliner intended'. Perhaps that won't delight everyone, but it certainly appealed to my particular brand of linguistic geekery.

James Sherwood.The examination of other people's songs is accompanied by original Sherwood compositions, many of which turn musical conventions on their head - a discussion on the lover as fool, for example, gives rise to a great track sung from the point of view of a man who has won 'hardly any Nobel prizes'. Of course, Sherwood does rather leave himself open to having his own songs carefully picked over, but you suspect he's way ahead of us...

Sherwood displays a typically English love of 'properness' on stage; he likes everything to be in its right place, and you suspect he's only half-joking when he sighs at yet another pop star's inability to work out when it's 'whom' and not 'who'. But that's not to say he's not a hell of a lot of fun - this material may have a Divine Comedy-esque archness, but it's equally warm and just a little silly. And Sherwood does wear his influences on his sleeve - his love of language and ear for conversation means that it is Victoria Wood who is evoked most strongly - but he sits happily and deservedly alongside them at the top of the musical comedy league.

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