Alexander Armstrong and His Band Celebrate The Great British Songbook at the St James Theatre Studio, London.
It is unlikely that many of the dates for the London Festival of Cabaret will have created such a flurry of sales as that of Alexander Armstrong and His Band. A regular face on British television screens for nearly 20 years as the other half of the comedy double-act Armstrong and Miller (and recently as host of the game show Pointless), his mellifluous voice coupled with a faintly self-deprecating manner and satirical wit has earned him a place in the nation’s heart. It’s a precarious place to rest on your laurels and Armstrong is to be praised for this fascinating departure from his usual role.
The absolute joy is that Alexander Armstrong and His Band Celebrate The Great British Songbook is an unqualified success. Aside from any of the artistic choices made, Armstrong has a belting baritone voice that lends itself admirably to a swing/blues sound and, accompanied by four exemplary musicians, the artist’s tentative foray into the world of cabaret makes for a cracking night out.
The mix of musical numbers is adorably eclectic and unerringly British, opening with Armstrong singing a cappella an old Northumbrian ditty, leaving the audience a little uncertain of where the evening is heading. Before long however, Armstrong and the band launch into a rousing rendition of Russ Ballard’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, made famous by hard rock band, Rainbow.
Further songs included Prefab Sprout’s ‘Hallelujah’, given an exquisite accompaniment by Simon Bates on the flute, closely followed by a little nostalgia with the classic ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. Each number is beautifully arranged and Armstrong’s vocals are a constant delight, whether shamelessly romantic or simply celebrating the downright diversity of a songbook barely touched upon by cabaret singers today.
It helps, of course, that throughout the evening Armstrong keeps up a stream of comedy dialogue, but when it leads into classics such as Mike Batt’s ‘Wombling in the Rain’, you realise that The Great British Songbook is almost as much about eccentricity as it is about music. To this end Chas & Dave’s glorious, full-bodied ballad to love-gone-sour ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’ sits happily side by side with Benjamin Britten’s O Waly Waly, accompanied only by Harry the Piano, mixing classic folk and ‘rockney’ in one set.
The second act is equally as eclectic, featuring among other things David Bowie’s ‘Changes’, Neil Hannon’s ‘Songs of Love’, perhaps best known as the theme tune to Father Ted, and the Spandau Ballet ballad ‘True’, given a glorious swing beat. There may be a strong jazz/swing sensibility about Armstrong’s work but his choices, a joint effort with the Festival’s artistic creator Neil Marcus, are infallible; a populist blend of the quaint and quirky that show off British writers at their best.
It takes a special kind of performer to pull off such a left-of-field set and Alexander Armstrong and His Band give it just the right amount of comedy, shored up by strong technique and not a little showmanship. So much so, that you simply have to forgive the American number used as an encore, but hearing Armstrong and His Band pull out all the stops for Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ is worth the price of the ticket alone.
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