Barbershopera: Cabaret Sauvignon

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

Close-harmony quartets might not be exactly what every teenager is swapping on their smartphone, but Barbershopera have embraced the mannered, old-fashioned nature of their genre and given it just enough of a contemporary twist to give it relevance, without reinventing it.

Well, I say ‘contemporary’, some of the reference points in this greatest-hits compilation show are certainly showing their age. Their opener’s about Kate Middleton – but the Royal wedding, not the topless snaps; while another song covers the London Mayoral fight between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Should you ever wonder how fickle politics is, just witness how out of date mentions of Brian Paddick seem now.

They joke, endearingly, about their lack of topicality in this greatest-hits sampler, and it’s all executed so well and with so much likeability that you easily forgive them – but if they were capable of tackling genuinely newsworthy material, that would be quite something.

Elsewhere we get songs grumbling about riding on the Tube, an nerdy office stalker and performing at the Edinburgh festival – clearly identifying the sort of audience they expect in this West End studio, Fringe-goers who err on the side of mainstream.

Few would go to Barbershopera seeking edge, however, and they deliver a rich performance, full of charm and talent and wit. That mayor song would, in the hands of a club comic with a guitar, seem a simple lyric-swap parody, but do it in perfectly harmonised a capella, and you have something a lot more distinctive.

They add a touch of rock, ragga and that dependable trope of posh people rapping – giving Rob Castell the chance to demonstrate an improvisational knack for freestyling about the audience that could give Abandoman a run for their buck.

Although Castell is clearly the leader, it’s all about ensemble, and not just in the harmonising. His three colleagues – Will Kenning, Pete Sorel-Cameron and Lara Stubbs, dressed to the nines – are allowed the chance to shine, with each of their personal vocal talents coming to the fore in almost every number.

Between songs, their banter has genuine bonhomie, yet delivered in too actorly a manner to really make a connection. They try to get the audience more involved via a sing-a-long, but it’s too complex for us to relax into… even if it demonstrates this close-harmony stuff isn’t as easy as it looks. And it doesn’t look easy.

Cut free from the plotted format of their usual shows, this compilation show suggests that Barbershopera are still seeking their place in the comedy world. Are they a classy dinner-cabaret act that are so much better than you would expect, or do they want to bring their redoubtable musical talents to bear on the more jagged ‘alternative’ circuit in the manner of the much-missed Kombat Opera?

Still, while they’re figuring that out, they continue to straddle both, and deliver a hugely entertaining and charismatic hour, guaranteed to spread a feelgood vibe.

Review date: 23 Sep 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Trafalgar Studios

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