Bill Bailey: Tinselworm

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Review from London's Gielgud Theatre, November 2008:Bill Bailey started this Tinselworm tour in such caverns this time last year, but now it’s been shrunk to fit in to a West End theatre… and is so much the better for it.

For although the bearded muso has all the accoutrements of a rock and roll comic, his essence is much more homely. He’s a passionate, decidedly quirky but fundamentally friendly and decent man of rather shambolic demeanour; the kind of chap more usually found at a Somerset cider festival than on stage at Wembley Arena.

So while the stage of the Gielgud Theatre is littered with the tools of his trade, from the essential keyboard to an Iranian oud, it’s also carpeted, with a comfy, battered leather armchair in one corner. The message is clear: Bailey’s here to make you feel at home, rather than impress with the spectacle of a mammoth gig.

His warmth – so all-enveloping that he can even make reference to the Baby P case without sparking offence – makes this an unrelentingly entertaining show. What it lacks in comic intensity it make up for in the feelgood factor, so vital in such straightened times.

The show’s been substantially rejigged on the road, too, with whole new sections added and a lot of material left by the wayside, though the logic of what stayed and what went is fuzzy. A few remaining segments appear a little dog-eared after so many months – none more so than the few last snipes at George Bush – while strong routines such as his impressive anti-Asda, anti-corporate rant have been sacrificed.

But what’s left is a enjoyably relaxed stroll through things that get Bailey’s goat, delivered so naturally it almost doesn’t feel like a gig at all, just a couple of hours in the company of an entertaining, avuncular stranger who also just happens to like showing off his musical genius in brief, funny snatches.

His Emo parody, especially, is inspired, and he even manages to elevate James Blunt insults into an art form, thanks to his pin-sharp spoof. Everything from the Killers lyrics to East European national anthems are given the benefit of his ridiculous treatment, but, musically, he’s never better than when making brilliant juxtapositions in unlikely mash-ups: The Star Wars Imperial Death March as a scat-jazz riff, the Dad’s Army theme funked up with a dance baseline or the philosophies of Emmanuel Kant set to the Match Of The Day theme. All rather silly, and all rather fun.

But alongside the ridiculous, more serious points are hinted at, from Swiss banks’ complicity in hoarding Nazi gold, to the advance of fairytale-believing creationists and the language politicians use to dismiss valid debate. It’s all treated with the lightest of touches, however. Sometimes his incisive political satire extends no further than morphing Margaret Thatcher’s face on the computer.

The clash of the highbrow and the stupid might seem unlikely, but is true to Bailey’s view that since the whole world is full of idiocies, he might as well join in, employing his wonderfully idiosyncratic use of English whenever he can. Who else could describe the humble barnacle as ‘an ossified pixie volcano of despair’.

Occasionally his more flighty routines run the risk of losing focus, but he quickly brings it in check: even in a stream of surrealism such as his imagining what a hash London will make of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, there’s a method to his madness.

Since he’s been touring this for a while, Bailey now appears thoroughly at ease with his eclectic material, and so makes the audience feel equally comfortable, and therefore receptive to his wistfully amusing banter. Happiness, then, is more-or-less guaranteed.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
London, November 2008

Review from Glasgow, November 2007:

If it’s true that most stand-ups would really rather be rock stars, then it’s no surprise that every properly successful act since Newman & Baddiel’s day have wanted a bash at the arena show. Never mind that comedy loses its crucial intimacy once you start measuring your audience in thousands rather than hundreds – just feel the sense of occasion.

Bill Bailey’s more rock and roll than most, though. Not through ego, of which he remains charmingly bereft, but through musicianship. When you’ve got a stage cluttered with instruments, including J Arthur Rank-style gong, you’re already halfway to that rock spectacular.

So when he lets rip with the big production numbers with full-on light show and imposing graphics on the big screen behind him, he’s making perfect use of the cavernous space. The powerful chords of Asda I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Bitch or the anguished emo-inspired spoof Blood On The Panini blast through the arena, while his George Bush mash-ups (think a 21st century version of Paul Hardcastle’s 19), Immanuel Kant philosophies explained to the Match Of The Day theme or alternative Seventies sitcom soundtrack to Terminator 3 all benefit from the added scale.

Even those who are not fans of musical comedy, of which there are legion, would have to concede that this rocks. It’s actually rather a shame that he shows restraint in his use of these big numbers, as they really get the mood going.

But alongside these dramatic moments, Bailey also manages to make the vast belly of Glasgow’s SECC armadillo surprisingly intimate. This might be an immense gig – and the venues are only going to get bigger as the tour progresses - but it still seems rather small. Hell, he even has to do his own off-stage introduction.

Even though the giant screens are no substitute for being able to see the whites of his twinkly, bug eyes – and actually prove a distraction as you inevitably wind up watching the video feed, not him – he appears as friendly and approachable as he would in a venue a tenth the size. A little too approachable, perhaps, if the number of heckles is anything to go by. Happily, though, they tend to be nothing too confrontational, but surreal interjections that set the already ill-disciplined Bailey off on various tangents.

But behind Bailey’s bumbling bumpkin persona lurks an unexpected anger, that gives some of his routines added bite. There’s a barely-contained passion behind his rants about overpaid soccer players, the soporific vacuity of Friends, or the corporate greed of the aforementioned Asda. These provide some of the best bits in a show that’s full of them.

Of course, his scatterbrain approach still wins through, flitting whimsically from one unlikely subject to the next. How many other comics would do routines about the CERN particle accelerator, the Third Reich’s economy minister and Ben Affleck all in the same show – and ensure that each of them is funny rather than simply random mentions in some limp stab at surrealism? Yet for all the eclectic, esoteric subject matter, the main thing you’ll take away from Tinselworm is the inability to hear the Killers’ refrain: ‘I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier’ with a straight face again.

In a fragmented two-hour-plus show, there are inevitable lulls, especially Bailey’s postmodern attempts to interact with the giant screens, which must have seemed much better on paper than they are in the execution. And some segments seem underpowered, even for a comic who’s made a virtue of spaced-out confusion.

There are, however, more than enough wonderfully offbeat moments of fine comedy to compensate for this – even if a bit more pizzazz wouldn’t go amiss. That’s never more true than in the larky, loose finale, in which he plays a quietly sweet short film, then scoots about the stage on a customised Segway, before reprising his bitter love song (including the impeccable line ‘soaking in the hoisin of your lies’) from 2004’s Part Troll.

This just doesn’t seem the big showbiz finish a gig of this size deserves, especially after some of the impressive segments that precede it. Go on, Bill, unleash your inner rock god…

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Glasgow, November 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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