Neil Hannon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

 

Holly Williams
Monday 07 November 2011 01:00
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While the audience mostly ignored the invitation to come in Hallowe'en fancy dress, Neil Hannon strides onstage in a costume presumably from the RSC's store: he is Richard III, hunchback and all.

With his arch humour and hammy stage presence, it could be the perfect venue for Hannon, and he can't resist throwing out lines from Romeo and Juliet, or insisting we shout "The Bard" whenever a song includes a Shakespeare quote.

Having played as The Divine Comedy with a band for many years, Hannon has plenty of material, though being a solo show the delivery is markedly different. While most tracks are played on a grand piano, he occasionally picks up an acoustic guitar, which can sound a little thin in the space. On record, his songs are often grandly scored, orchestral strings sweeping away, but Divine lite is mostly rather enjoyable – what is lost in scale is made up for in mood. The dizzy "Generation Sex", for example, becomes rather mournful, while "Everybody Knows (Except You)" has more heart, less silliness.

His voice, too, is richer, with greater depth than expected, and ratchets up into an impressive falsetto at times.

Not that you'd call it a slick show: Hannon messes up with good-natured frequency – he wouldn't last long as an actor, given the lines he fluffs. But he also gets away with it, by being immensely charming: wry, witty, and quick to quip. I don't think I've ever laughed as much at a gig. And he's the first to acknowledge his failings: when someone requests "Mastermind" he responds, "I'm going to be on that and my chosen special subject is not going to be my own songs."

After an interval, Hannon saunters back on in a suit and bowler hat, before launching into "The Complete Banker" – a song he says he'll cease playing when it "stops being topical". It's one of many artfully amusing numbers, with other popular choices being the jaunty hit "National Express" and even "My Lovely Horse", of Father Ted fame. But the comedic ditties are interspersed with storytelling yarns and sweetly simple love songs. The latter could veer towards mawkish – as in "Have You Ever Been in Love" when he sings, "Have you ever figured out the meaning of life/ Just by looking into someone else's eyes." Live, however, these come across as tender, and moving. There's plenty of comedy here, but it also manages to be quite divine.

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