Tim Minchin, Eventim Apollo, review: the entertaining return of the Rock’n’Roll Nerd

'A real emotional wallop': Tim Minchin's Back -  STEVE GILLETT / LIVEPIX
'A real emotional wallop': Tim Minchin's Back - STEVE GILLETT / LIVEPIX

Tim Minchin’s new show is called Back, which is both an under- and an over-statement. It’s an overstatement because it implies the British-Australian polymath has somehow been away. In the eight years since audiences were last treated to his wickedly sharp comedy gigs – or, as he only half-jokingly calls them, “logical philosophy lectures disguised as cabaret shows” – the 44-year-old has launched a TV career, written a pair of Olivier-winning musicals (Matilda and Groundhog Day) and starred in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar that filled arenas on two continents. He’s hardly been in hiding.

Back is an understatement, though, because it undersells the theatrical ambition of this roof-raising return, and the feverish excitement of his fans, who ensured the tour sold out more than a year in advance.

There was an audible gasp at the Apollo on Friday night when Minchin first appeared, as if from nowhere: a spotlight flashed on and there he was, hunched at a grand piano, barefoot, face half-hidden by a rat’s nest of russet hair, wild eyes caked in mascara. Looking, in other words, just the same as ever.

Such is Minchin’s charisma that he could easily have held the crowd’s attention for this show’s full three hours on his own. For the first few songs, it seemed that might be the plan – but then, halfway through his defining anthem Rock’n’Roll Nerd, the backdrop fell to reveal a seven-piece backing band, giving added kick to the tune’s overblown pop-prog.

His high, nasal, instantly identifiable Australian tenor is still extraordinarily clear: Minchin has the voice of an angel with a cold. It’s an asset he puts to good use in his song F Sharp (sung intentionally a semitone out-of-key), the kind of clever jeu d’esprit that calls to mind Tom Lehrer. Minchin namechecked Lehrer onstage, a little dismissively - perhaps being constantly compared to the greatest living musical comedian can get tiresome.

To be fair to him, Minchin is trying to do something different to Lehrer. He really has more in common with Randy Newman: he’s a songwriter whose work can be extremely funny, rather than a writer of funny songs. A setlist covering 20 years - from his jazzy 1999 beat poem Mitsubishi Cult to brand-new tunes – was a reminder of Minchin’s maturing songcraft. His best new work brings a real emotional wallop.

Tim Minchin performing in Hay-on-Wye in 2012 - Credit: Clara Molden
Tim Minchin performing in Hay-on-Wye in 2012 Credit: Clara Molden

I’ll Take Lonely Tonight, for instance, about resisting fans’ amorous advances and crawling back to a “3.5 star hotel room” while his wife and children are on the other side of the world, was sung with such self-deprecating, tender pathos that it was possible to forget, for a moment, that we had been lured in under the promise of comedy.

This was all the more impressive given the abrupt gear-shift from what Minchin had been up to just minutes earlier: Cheese, a winningly self-indulgent “eight-and-a-half minute rock opera” about dairy products, delivered with the kind of pomp and swagger that even Bohemian Rhapsody-era Freddie Mercury would consider a bit much.

Minchin’s music can succeed without the comedy, but as a comedian he struggles without the music. The weakest section of this show is its most conventional stand-up routine. Darting back and forth across the stage, Minchin propounds a grand unifying theory about confirmation bias, and how (post-internet) we’ve become trapped in echo chambers. It’s a fair point, but hardly an original one; I’ve heard it made with more wit and incisiveness by any number of comedians and pundits. The unexpected slant Minchin usually brings to his material was missing, and his tone drifted towards hectoring. There was a similar obviousness to the criticism of online mobs that followed it, an upbeat, poppy number called 15 Minutes, with a chorus insisting (pace Andy Warhol) “in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of shame”.

Minchin is still a polemicist eager to set the world to rights – the contradictions of organised religion come in for a bashing in several songs – but the best parts of Back are more introspective. After the interval, perched on the front of the stage, Minchin opens up about falling into a spiral of depression after the unfinished Dreamworks film he had poured his soul into for four years was scrapped. He’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that “chucking a sad because they won’t make your $100 million cartoon” isn’t the most relatable problem in the world, but his candour is still touching.

For many years, Minchin says, after his career took off with his Best Newcomer award at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe, he was “misdiagnosed as a comedian”. What Back reveals is that he’s something harder to pin down - a true original, half rock-star, half maudlin philosopher. In lieu of a better label, Rock’n’Roll Nerd will have to do.

Until Thurs and touring (returns only);