There is a huge range of skills at play here. And the way he weaves them all together into something resembling a whole is bewilderingly deft. But that said – you could probably describe Bill Bailey as having the one, key superpower: an ability to make a large group of strangers blissfully, almost deliriously happy for over two hours. If you ever get the chance to see him live – go without hesitation.
This is the first comedy event I’ve written up for ArtMuseLondon, and it’s an interesting reversal of the usual discipline. With music or art, it’s my mission to give you as good an idea of what something sounds or looks like, conjuring all the descriptive powers I can muster. For comedy, I need to give you the same kind of crucial information while in fact revealing as little of the content as possible. You couldn’t make it up, etc. [Canned laughter.]
Many of you, at least, will know what Bill Bailey sounds and looks like. After his triumphant run on TV juggernaut ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, he is finally a household name in the true sense of the word – and the Strictly experience inevitably features in the show. But of course, he was already a much-loved presence on UK panel shows (the whimsical ‘QI’ is an especially good home for his inquisitive, inclusive humour) and live stand-up veteran, channelling his fearsome musical talent into his routines from the outset.
For anyone totally unfamiliar with Bailey, it’s probably fair to say there are three key aspects to his comedy that a layperson like me – someone outside the craft – could put their finger on. Music is almost certainly the most obvious – some comedians write funny songs, some specialise in musical parodies (whether straight-forward send-ups, or re-working well-known tracks in different, ludicrously inappropriate, genres), and perhaps a handful include straight, serious performances purely for the pleasure of sharing the tune. Bailey does it all.
The second element is the natural world. A keen birdwatcher and conservation campaigner, Bailey has always created routines discussing the wonders of the animal kingdom, especially those creatures that might be a little less cute or loveable than others, and as a result, cruelly overlooked. The plight of one such beast was a show-stopping highlight of this show, covering at least one false start, two languages and three species. Trying to hint at any specific detail of this beautifully-structured routine would bring the whole edifice crashing down, so I shall resist.
Bailey always brings a heightened element of pleasurable geekery to these topics. I feel sure this is partly due to his deliberate decision to look at least a little bit like a wizard. But even more than that – and this would still make him a national treasure in my eyes even if the music and nature components vanished from his act – is the way he rejoices in the possibilities of language.
This piece of footage demonstrates what I mean – especially once he starts examining the phrase “all things considered” to the point of utter destruction. (I feel comfortable posting this YouTube clip as it’s widely regarded as a terrific example of Bailey’s genius, and dates from a four-year-old show, ‘Limboland’.)
The ability to smash together the mundane and the sublime, to simply take the train of thought down the last siding you might expect, came early on at the ROH. In a slightly more political frame of mind than usual, Bailey treated us to some quickfire word portraits of our current lords and masters, using exactly the same scope for free-range imagery. On the whole, though, the ‘En Route to…’ performance felt more laser-focused than the ‘Limboland’ clip might suggest. Bailey packed the running time with finely-wrought routines, mostly built around what felt like an unprecedented number of musical items, and usually linked to one of the instruments surrounding him on the stage.
In the way that someone delivering a speech might use cue cards, or follow a series of key ‘trigger’ words, I wondered if there was a story or song attached to each instrument that gave Bailey his chunks of material, and that he could work off them all in the order that seemed right for the current audience. (Our noisy response level was a bit low on a hot Saturday matinee, and he bumped up a singalong ahead of a spoken routine – telling us what he was up to – to get us properly energised. The fact that he managed us through this practical piece of business with the entire audience still finding the whole thing hilarious is testament to his ability to generate laughter and goodwill.)
Such is his immersion in so many musical genres, his enthusiastic dashes between theremin and mandola, or hang and grand piano make it feel like he’s been given the run of a well-stocked music shop overnight, careering from one idea to the next, the personification of disorganised chaos. But there’s only a gossamer veil of mayhem. Partly this is because no joke is too small: he will lavish as much care on a miniature flight of fancy as he would an epic shaggy dog story, which means that some instruments are there to make their impact in a matter of seconds.
But it might also be a case of location, location, location. It occurred to me that Bailey might, if possible, play the ROH as his London venue of choice in future, having been given the key two years running. He seems to respond to it as a ‘room’ with unchecked delight. He riffs on the idea that as it’s the ROH, it must be a musical crowd (“Do you want to hear a madrigal? Of course you do, it’s the Royal Opera House!”) and of course, thanks to the nature of his comedy, it could be substantially true. (If not when they went in… at least by the time they came out.)