Review: Alexander Armstrong, The Hippodrome

Alexander Armstrong

Here's my review of Alexander Armstrong from earlier this year. He is back in London to play the London Festival of Cabaret from Oct 28 - 31. Details here.

Now here's a funny thing. Alexander Armstrong, the posher half of Armstrong and Miller, doing an evening of "mirth and music" backed by a live band in a small club at the back of a West End casino. It is a concept where the jokes write themselves. I kept thinking of a particular A&M sketch. I thought of going up to Xander at the end and saying how brilliant he was, then, as he smiled and strolled away, adding...."kill him".

Actually it looked like Armstrong himself was going to do the murdering when he came on – smart white shirt, crisp dark jeans, visibly nervous – and did grievous bodily harm to a lounge lizard version of Rainbow's Since You've Been Gone. Admittedly he had a bad cold and streaming nose, but he seemed to be in a different postcode to the correct key. Could this whole show be an elaborate set-up for a gag? Was Ben Miller about to walk on - a la Eric Morecambe   – and disrupt the entire affair? Sadly no.

After the dodgy opening however, a minor miracle occurred. The former chorister relaxed, found the right key and settled into a cabaret-friendly mix of light jazz standards and pop reinterpretations. Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby? slipped down fairly painlessly and he added a rather fetching Morrisseyesque yodel to the chorus of a swing version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

As for the promised mirth, that consisted of a selection of wry, dry one-liners and some light Jimmy Savile jabs aimed at a mainstream crowd rather than this cynical critic. He politely explained that Jimmy Carr had been going to join him but was filming an advert in Qatar for which he was being paid £250,000 – "that's nearly a quarter of a million pounds after tax..."

Some guests would have certainly put a more colourful spin on proceedings. In fact Ben Miller is not averse to the odd warble himself, having done, among other things, a version of Bowie's Life On Mars at the cult club Karaoke Circus. And if the duo had got together maybe we could have had a quick burst of their lewd musical twosome Brabbins & Fyffe.

But apart from a quick bit of Whose Tune Is It Anyway? in which a few audience requests were playfully played by the band this was very much The Alexander Armstrong Show.  And after some early dodgy moments the half-time oranges seemed to have helped. The second set kicked off with a medley of I've Got You Under My Skin and Fly Me to The Moon followed by Prefab Sprout's Hallelujah. You certainly can't fault his taste in literate pop, which ranged from the aforementioned Sprout to Ben Folds and Neil Hannon. A rather angelic version of The Divine Comedy's Songs of Love (aka the Father Ted theme) was a moment to savour.

As his confidence grew things became a bit more interesting. At one point Armstrong held a note for so long it started to look like a comedy sound effect. Elsewhere he showed his versatility by picking up a saxophone and joining Simon Bates (not that one) in a brassy duet. Most intriguing was a song by Smith & Burrows, the touching When The Thames Froze, which he said was his Pointless chum Richard Osman's favourite song. This was a curious selection from a lyrical point of view, as it contains the line "God damn this Government, will they ever tell me where the money went?" Armstrong was quoted in the Telegraph last year saying of David Cameron that "He's the first Prime Minister since I've been an adult that I'm glad is in power."

Armstrong is here until February 2 and tickets start at £25, which is not exactly cheap, but you do get to feel like you are in the nightclub scene from Goodfellas (minus Joe Pesci pulling out a pistol). Armstrong says that the Hippodrome approached him to play their Matcham Room and it was hard to resist. Shirley Bassey, Charlie Chaplin and Olly Murs have previously played here so I guess that was an offer that was hard to resist. Just think of it. Singing where Olly Murs has sung.

One could write a PhD on comedians doing music. From Alexei Sayle and Harry Enfield to Hugh Laurie, Vic Reeves and David Baddiel they've all dipped their toes in those waters. It is a truth universally acknowledged that most stand-ups would have rather been pop stars. Armstrong looks like he would rather be Frank Sinatra. He might not have reached those heights last night, but if the comedy ever dries up there might be a residency on a cruise liner for him. Not quite a pointless exercise then.

 

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