Friday, February 17, 2012

Five Anarchists Singing About the Good Old Days

Big Society
Leeds City Varieties
Feb 2nd

Well, that’s a thing I never expected to see. Chumbawamba in panto.

Okay, it isn’t actually a pantomime. It’s a political riff on Victorian musical comedies. For all of us who grew up in the 70s and were sometimes allowed to stay up past our bedtimes, Leeds City Varieties is synonymous with Music Hall (“Mr Larry Grayson, the entire and indefatigable orchestra, but this time, chiefly, yourselves”). But the real thing was apparently a good deal ruder and less well behaved than the Edwardian world conjured by The Good Old Days, and Boff Whalley’s programme notes say that he wanted to salvage Music Hall from that genteel image. We are told that analogies be drawn between Victorian times, when bankers had bankrupt the country and Etonian politicians were leading us into pointless wars, and modern times, when, er...

Well, analogy would be overstating it somewhat. The company marches through the gallery, down the stairs, through the foyer, up to the aisle and onto the stage singing:

"We’re all in this together!
As equals we will brave this stormy sea!
I will be the Captain, and you can work the oars
In our Big Society!"

I think we all get the point.

The set up is a little like an episode of the Muppet Show, alternating between songs and turns in front of the curtain and soap opera and back-biting back stage. It all feels rather like a college revue into which one of the best live acts in the country, a famous comedian and a first rate theater company have somehow fallen. "Panto" will do.

The role of the Big Society Band is taken by the Chumbas themselves, sans Lou, but with Harry Hamer (the band’s regular drummer before they went all folkie). Harry also has a big acting role as the hopeless conjurer Magic Barry; Phil Moody (the one with the accordion and the percussive tie) has a small one as the hypocritical journalist (the man from the Double Standard) who wants to close the theatre down for using the word “bollocks”. Jude, laying aside her trumpet in favour of a euphonium, spends most of the acted sections sitting at the back of the stage knitting. The other acting parts are played by members of the Red Ladder theatre company, along with Phil Jupitus (a.ka.“that man off the telly”) who can, of course, also sing.

Anything the songs may have lacked in subtlety is more than made up for in gusto, enthusiasm and bloody good tunes. Beatrice (Kyla Goodey) does a Marie Lloyd style tribute to the police doing any number of filthy things with a truncheon, while delivering lyrics along the lines of

"Spare a thought for the dear old boys in blue
What the prisoner has sworn, well its not true
Yes the head of the accused
Acquired a most alarming bruise
I blame the station wall that he chance to walk into"

Phil Jupitus steals the show with his turn as the entirely non-specific public schoolboy turned prime minister. He can not only sing and deliver jokes, but has a lovely knack for throwing comedy tantrums on the stage. (“Claimants and shirkers / Manual workers / We’ll hang em by the old school tie”) The entire company winds up act one doing “It’s the same the ‘ole world over, it’s the poor wot get the blame”, with new words about an MP who is let off for fiddling his expenses because he knows the judge, while a pauper is hanged for stealing bread and water.

Subtle is not the word. But I suppose it never was.

The backstage plot is a good deal less convincing than the musical turns. We have Beatrice, the suffragette, assuring us (you’ll like this) that everything will be better when we have a woman as prime minister; and Eve, the conjurer’s partner, trying on lots of different religions until she discovers (stop me if you’ve heard this before) that she’s happier thinking for herself. (“I thought you were a Presbyterian?” “No, that was this morning.”) One feels that Boff has taken to heart the old “Well, you wouldn’t dare say that about Muslim, would you?” line and is attempting to poke fun at everyone equally. (“Don’t you know you’ll have to give up sex?” “Oh...I thought they said ‘celebrate’.”) Poor Barry has a magic wardrobe which repeatedly fails to make volunteers from the audience vanish. The Master of Ceremonies had a horrible time at school because his best friend was an invisible monkey. (“It’s a cold hard world Marcel / Nobody cares or understands / A place where a man and his monkey / Can’t walk openly hand in hand.”)

If I were the sort of person who was inclined to over think things, I would say that it’s hardly fair to satirize Eve's endless quest for spirituality and then to tell the MC that it’s okay to be friends with Marcel after all. (“Sometimes / You have to step out into space / Sometimes / To an unexpected place / Sometimes / You have to take a leap of faith.”) But I suspect that this isn’t the kind of show you are meant to think about very much at all. But it is the kind of show in which Boff himself takes the role of the invisible monkey. Who turns out to live in a magic kingdom. Entered through a portal in Magic Barry's wardrobe. Obviously. It may be trying quite hard to make you like it, but it's very hard not to. We need no encouragement at all to sway along to the last chorus of :

"We’re not in this together!
Cos I can plainly see
There’s rules for the toffs and the better offs
And different rules for me..."

One can quite see why Boff would want to embrace music hall. Chumbawamba are about an endless quest for voice-of-the-people authenticity; making records with Coope, Boyes and Simpson and quoting Carthy and in almost the same breath suggesting that the whole idea of of folk music is a bit of a con. Lots of people have spotted that the aforementioned Cecil Sharp was "preserving" folk music at exactly the moment when actual folk had stopped singing songs about princesses sewing silken seams and decided that they preferred ones about the lady gardener who sits among the cabbages and peas. (Which, as everyone knows, was later changed to "she sits among the lettuces and leaks".)

I’ve been listening my way through Chumbawamba’s back catalogue. Surprising, with all the electro dance beats and punk shouting, how much they sounded like Chumbawamba, or put another way, how much of the punk sound survives in the acapella folk collective. Strange to listen to the ghost of rages past: who now remembers what the Alton Bill was, or what Paul McCartney did to upset them? In a way, I wish Nick Clegg could be subjected to that kind of fury. But the strategy of just poking fun at these ridiculous people is perhaps just as valid, more effective, and certainly more fun.

Phil Jupitus does a ventriloquists act in his “David Cameron” persona, with Nick Clegg as his puppet. "I like him sitting on my knee" says Dave "I like it best when he pisses down my leg. Feels nice and warm. I call it getting a Nick Leg." And then, to audience, "Nick Leg, you see. Nick Leg. Because his name's Nick Clegg".

What a pro.

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