Flight of the Conchords, O2 Arena, London, review: Newer material propels an enjoyable show, but the venue overwhelms

Musical comics Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are back on tour – after seven years' absence, and an injury 

Flight of the Conchords are touring the UK
Flight of the Conchords are touring the UK

“Sorry we’re late.” Flight of the Conchords, aka Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, are back in the UK for the first time in seven years – and three months. Their tour had to be rescheduled after McKenzie fell down some stairs and injured his hand.

Somehow, it’s also more than a decade since their brilliant musical comedy show was first seen on HBO, making these low-key New Zealanders into the unlikeliest of international stars.

“Something you may have noticed – we are older,” begins Clement, typically deadpan. “Dustier.”

But time has not dimmed British enthusiasm for the pair: they’ve filled the O2 Arena. For three nights in a row. So, is it business time?

Well, it’s presumably very good business for them. But the venue does their material no favours – and the pair never seem quite comfortable in the vast, echoey space.

Their stage personas are appealingly lo-fi, lightly shambolic; they start tracks in the wrong key or at the wrong time, murmur “oops-a-daisy” when things go wrong. They’re joined by the ‘New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’: one man on a cello. The droll between-song chat sends up how deeply un-rock-and-roll they are, with tales of getting stuck in a lift or decadently consuming free muffins in the hotels they now stay at (“the premier inns, the very best westerns”).

Yet here they are, in a stadium. While you’d never begrudge them their success, or want to deny patient fans, it doesn’t quite sit right.

They also, for the record, only tease us with a chorus from “Business Time” – probably their most famous track. No “Hiphopopotamus” either. This, however, is no cause for complaint: it’s very much the newer material that carries the evening.

FotC’s skill was always in combining joyously daft flights of fancy with surprising lyrical wordplay or a bathetic emotional suckerpunch. It’s more wry-smile than great-guffaw stuff, but there’s real pleasure in being taken on the journey of each song with them, through sly twists and reveals (in a schmaltzy father-son ballad, it turns out the grieved-for wife just shacked up with another man named Trevor), or concepts taken to absurd ends (as with a brilliant extended jazz-club jam about spoon theft, featuring “sax offenders and felonious monks”).

There’s equal pleasure in the music, too: the pair lovingly send up all sorts of genres, while keeping that stony-faced seriousness that makes them so irresistible. Old favourites are happily wheeled out here: the Prince-style funk of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room”, with that immortal chat-up line, “you could be a part-time model”; the Kraftwerk-esque “Robots”; the Pet Shop Boys parody “Inner City Pressure”, and the obvious tribute that is “Bowie’s in Space”.

But newer numbers also take pastiche to delightfully bonkers extremes, as on the the recorder wig-out of the mock-medieval ”The Summer of 1353”, or the extended Johnny Cash-style tale of a wild west outlaw who falls in love with his own doppelganger.

Clement and McKenzie also still have an ear for the social awkwardness of modern life: I loved a track about petty party rules – shake your ass, but re-use your glass – where guests mostly just want to get the wifi code so they can check their emails on the loo (not something FotC would have been singing about when they formed back in 1998). It ends with a singalong, the room divided into chanting “chips” or “dips”.

It’s a rare moment where the eager crowd are really drawn in. This show is always enjoyable, but in this space can never quite deliver the scruffy intimacy that is surely part of the Conchords’ appeal.

Flight of the Conchords are on tour till 4 July (flightoftheconchords.co.nz)

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