Review of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
written for The Public Reviews
On the night an angry mob set fire to police cars and an Aldi supermarket in Tottenham it seemed wholly appropriate that the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain should not just lead in to its set with the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ but actively encourage the entire Richmond audience to sing along with such enthusiasm.
Of course if the Rocky Mountain campfire modulations of the Ukes’ version had been the inspiration behind a Tottenham disturbance, the hoodies might have been washing the police cars and taking their empty petrol bottles back to Aldi since it’s such a calming and elegant version of the song which as well as demonstrating their extraordinarily adaptable technique also shows up the real musicality of Pistols John Lydon and Glen Matlock who composed it.
The other thing to say about the Ukes is that theirs is an act to which you really can bring the whole family, and many did – a completely full house featured many nuclear groups of mum, dad and a couple of teenagers all of whom seemed to get something enjoyable from the show.
They’re an eight-piece band but since they’ve been together 26 years they must by now have paid holidays and a pension scheme because only seven made an appearance at Richmond. Their self-deprecating humour and deadpan delivery have become a trademark and adored by their many fans, but to the uninitiated this can feel rather like all your secondary school teachers coming together with a certain amount of reticence to perform for an end of term concert.
Because most of their orchestrations deliberately contrast with the music itself, each piece becomes a ‘name that tune’ session as the audience sighs or applauds with appreciation when it finally recognizes the song. Despite vociferous enthusiasm for all the material, there were moments of repetitiveness during which we amused ourselves by identifying the ‘lookalikes’ in the orchestra – including John Major, David Tennant, Joan Bakewell and Jo Brand, plus a massive bonus in the leader George Hinchliffe who is a dead ringer for former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, although for sure the Chancellor never impersonated Kate Bush as remarkably as George.
The individual vocals are variable, the men generally better than the women, but standout hits were a folky version of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag, the theme tune to ‘Shaft’ and an outstanding 32-bar Limehouse Blues taken at the breakneck speed of duelling gypsy violins.
The group fights shy of paying homage to popular ukulele players like George Formby or Tiny Tim, but in their storming finale transformed Formby’s most popular song into a mournfully Russian, balalaika-orchestral, authentically Cossack dance which must henceforward be known as ‘Lenin on a Lamp-post’.
Thanks to everyone who joined Erin Kelly, Melanie McGrath and me at Mansfield Central Library on Saturday 25 February. We had a panel discussion and Q&A, ...