Bill Bailey: Larks in Transit, Wyndham’s Theatre, review: Theresa May's speeches conquer the dance floor
Bill Bailey is best known for his TV work. As he reminds us in this splendid touring show, finally arrived the West End, you’ve probably seen him on “Never Mind Have I Got Black Books QI for You”. But the stage is where his mad professor eccentricities truly take flight.
We’re treated to a pipe-chewing lecture on Iceland (the country and the shop), quotes from a tattered Indonesian phrasebook and a skit about a hapless West Country falconry instructor which left me gasping for breath. It’s the musical numbers, though, that really impress.
Bailey is the Mike Oldfield of comedy, modestly introducing a range of obscure instruments – a theremin, a handpan, a four-string blues guitar built from a hardback Bible – before putting them to the daftest ends imaginable. With the help of a synth, he uses Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda to explain the difference between different bird calls.
Not all the ideas are new: swapping famous tunes from a major to a minor key (and vice versa) has long been a staple of musical comedy. But a version of Old MacDonald rewritten as a spot-on Tom Waits spoof justifies the price of admission on its own.
Larks in Transit does, however, take a while to get going. An opening stab at topical stand-up – with less original lines on Trump, Brexit and #MeToo – came across as an obligatory box-checking exercise, in which Bailey seemed markedly less confident in his material.
He’s much better on the bewildering morass of online news, which grinds down everything to “a thin humous we dip into with the stale pitta bread of self-loathing”. Bailey is not naturally a political comedian, and his satire really takes off only when it’s closest to absurdism – remixing Theresa May’s speeches into Nineties dance bangers, for instance.
If some of his observations about political turmoil in 2018 are old hat, his jokes about the Battle of Maldon in 991AD couldn’t feel fresher. The more abstruse the material, the more he seems at home. I’d quite happily listen to Bailey’s bumbling explanations of Norse myths all evening.
Bailey seems to have set himself the challenge of wringing laughter from the least likely sources. One section sees him unearth ancient jokes – a Shakespearean knock-knock gag, a middle-finger insult from Aristophanes – and prove that they can still get a laugh today. It’s the perfect reminder that it’s all in how you tell them.
Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2 (0844 871 2118), until Jan 5 and touring