Music Nicol Williamson Pizza on the Park, London

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The Independent Culture
"Matilda", as Hilaire Belloc wrote, "told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one's eyes." There was a fair amount of eye stretching going on when news broke that Nicol Williamson, former great white hope of Sixties acting talent, was singing twice nightly at Pizza on the Park, a venue more used to the jazz noodlings of Richard Rodney Bennett or the glamour of Manhattan supper-club artistes.

Those in the know hastily pointed out that Williamson has been singing for years, everywhere from New York jazz clubs all the way to the Nixon White House, a gig set up by Harold Wilson. The late, great Kenneth Tynan recalled Williamson at John Osborne's house in 1965, a year after his indelible performance in Inadmissible Evidence, "singing jazz standards and accompanying himself on an 18th-century keyboard in a style you might describe as stride spinet."

Thirty years on, the top of his voice is a hoarse croak but it bottoms out into a deep baritone that recalls the Fifties crooner Michael Holliday. The most obvious influence though is Bing Crosby, both in terms of style and content, with Twenties and Thirties songs like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" given the languid swooping-up-to-the-note treatment.

Anyone anxious to see what this great conveyor of the heart and soul of language brings to singing will be dismayed. It's not that he can't hack it, he can. He cuts a fast swing through "Baby Face" and strolls alongside the walking bass of "My Blue Heaven", but, bewilderingly, it's all to no effect, as if the songs have nothing to say, merely tunes with vowels and consonants attached. You keep waiting for wit or passion or something, but the performance is completely anodyne. For a singer to present songs as simply sound is foolish; in an actor, particularly one of this stature, it's bizarre. Worse, though, are the anecdotes he meanders through. Listening to someone interspersing material with a ramshackle, unfunny story about bad singers torturing pianists by having no sense of timing and then to witness them struggling lamely through the next song is embarrassing. Not that the band is in any way to blame. He is rightly proud of the quartet under the "peerless leader" Cliff Hall, and so he should be. They are a relaxed, polished, class act.

The second set peaks early with his second number, a flat- out, Crosby- style rendition of "Now You Has Jazz", and all of a sudden he is focussed. It's a big sing with a bigger finish and everything looks like it might, against all the odds, take off. But he never manages to capitalise upon it and the rest of the set trails off with him joshing the band or crooning vaguely into the middle distance.

The last time he sang in this country was after the first night of his solo show about John Barrymore. High on adrenalin, he invited the audience back for an impromptu jazz cabaret. Whatever he was like then, at least that audience had seen him doing what he was best at first.

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