The Divine Comedy, Somerset House, London

A singular wit, two decades on
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The Independent Culture

Forget his reputation as an arch, Noël Coward-style wit, tonight Neil Hannon revels in the devotion of loyal fans. He plays right up to the 11pm curfew, some feat as the Northern Irish artist performs entirely solo.

For 20 years, The Divine Comedy's various line-ups have transported his songwriting talents, but this year Hannon has pleaded financial straits and ditched the band. After a handful of low-key dates, one of Britpop's unlikeliest stars finds himself in the sumptuous courtyard of one of London's finest buildings. Somerset House was home to the early Inland Revenue, an apposite location as city gents populate Hannon's 10th, self-released album and taxing the financial industry is high on the government's agenda.

He arrives in bowler hat, with pipe and briefcase, a look that suits him well. With literary references and elegant dress sense, Hannon stood out from the pack in the new-laddish Nineties as something of a young fogey. Now his career is enjoying a second wind as the artist approaches his 40th birthday with some panache. This year, Hannon has earned an Ivor Novello nomination for his cricket-themed side project The Duckworth Lewis Method, while Bang Goes the Knighthood became his highest charting album since 2001.

Hannon performs mainly on a grand piano, an instrument he is clearly well acquainted with as fingers dance over delicate melodies or hammer out percussive power chords that bring to life more orchestral numbers. The performer is less sure busking away on acoustic guitar, though his main problem lies in remembering all the words from a sizeable back catalogue, an issue Hannon glides over by asking his attentive audience for cues or deftly ad-libbing. Happily, plenty of surprises emerge beyond the singles.

On "Songs of Love" he neatly reworks his wonky theme tune to sitcom Father Ted into a joyous celebration of seductive lyric-writing. Tonight's setting best frames Hannon's romantic side, with "Everybody Knows (Except You)" reaching back to the great American songbook via Stephen Merritt.

Yet for a figure once heralded as Wilde's heir, his attempts at acidic description often fall flat. "National Express" was The Divine Comedy's biggest hit, but the humour in this ode to coach travel relies on a stewardess's lardy bum. Elsewhere, he tackles Brel with his tale of a lone female surviving war-torn Naples, but new track "Neapolitan Girl" is a pastel-coloured confection next to the Belgian chanteur's grim tales.

Also from the current album, "At the Indie Disco" provides a charming dance down memory lane for a largely late thirtysomething audience. The artist cleverly follows up with a stately take on MGMT's "Time to Pretend" – "the sound of indie discos today," he offers. Well into his stride, Hannon returns for an extended encore that takes his show beyond an hour and a half without leaving time for old faves "Something for the Weekend" and "Generation Sex". An uneven set, but Hannon rarely makes for dull company. No double-dip recession looms for this perfect gent.

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