The League of Gentlemen — Live Again!
Sunderland Empire, August 26 2018
I’d never been to the Sunderland Empire before. Truth to tell, it’s quite a long time since I’ve been to Sunderland at all, but the Empire is a fabulous building, kind of unassuming from the outside, but beautiful within, and full of the patina of luxury and glamour and that must have greeted theatre audiences in the glory days of music hall. A mirror on the way into the bar reminds us that this place was opened in 1907 by Vesta Tilley, if we needed any more indication that this place has a rich and varied history. But perhaps the most famous story about the Empire is that it’s the place where the great Sid James met his end. Well, Sid may have died here, but the League of Gentlemen didn’t. Poor old Plop-Plop the panda wasn’t quite so lucky. But more on that later…
As an aside here, there was clearly a Neil Sedaka fan kicking around somewhere this evening, because all the music pre- and post show, and in the the interval, seemed to be a selection of yer man Sedaka’s Greatest Hits. Not that I’m complaining, as this was all the quality Brill Building stuff. Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen all the way, and none of that depressing Solitaire stuff, which crosses the line from being mawkish to just plain, full-on mawk. No fun for anyone.
Anyway, as you can see from the pictures, I was up in the Gods in nosebleed territory. That said, the rake up here is pretty steep, so I didn’t have any problems with having to try and peer through someone else’s head for the whole evening.
The show is broken into two very distinct halves. The first, before the interval, is stripped back, and more in keeping with their early material and style. They take to the stage in evening wear; the props and sets are are simple, and moved around mostly by the performers themselves. We get some old favourites, like Go Johnny, Go Go Go!, Trivial Pursuit, and Pop, bookended by Legs Akimbo. For me, the pick of this section was Mick McNamara, providing an early reminder, if anyone needed it, of the black, mordant (to steal one of Mick’s own words) underbelly a lot of their best material has.
The second half changes things up a gear, and uses much more in the way of audio visual trickery. We begin where were left off at the end of the final 2017 TV Special, in Papa Lazarou’s Wife Mine. Of course, what else would we have as a result of that but an Edward & Tubbs musical duet? It’s also the first run out for some of the larger sets, which are artfully done, and work very smoothly indeed.
But before some of the bigger set pieces, there is something much simpler, and rather more bittersweet: another runout for Toddy’s Bingo. That section was one of the highlights of the 2017 specials for me. with laughs to be sure, but threaded through with an aching sense of pathos, as he talks about the loss of his partner, a ladyboy he brought back from Thailand, a sketch that keeps you waiting for a punchline that is never going to come. This is the stuff that they do so very very well, delivered pretty much note perfect.
Herr Lipp’s German Lesson is one of the highlights of the evening. It is a cavalcade of cleverly constructed bilingual filth, requiring two unsuspecting audience members to help him out. It also contains what I think is the funniest single line of the evening, when Herr Lipp flirts outrageously with the male victi…volunteer, he tells him he would “like to tickle your belly button. From the inside”. It’s also usefully educational. Who knew that translating “I am an ambassador” into German could be such a minefield?
We also get to see some other old favourites, like the well-meaning, but cursed Mr Chinnery, using lasers to perform a cataract removval on Plop-Plop the giant panda. Obviously, it’s Mr Chinnery, so if you’re familiar with the show you can all too easily guess the rest, but again, the use of props and the staging is really nicely done. Geoff Topps delivers the Best Man’s Speech from Hell, and, interspersed through proceedings, is Bernice, answering “questions from the audience”, finally with the use of a crossbow.
Some the characters we left at the end of the 2017 specials are given new, and sometimes surprising, new life, such as at Pauline’s Funeral, which is not quite as final as you might first think. The Dentons make two appearances: the first is Auntie Val’s Wedding, with a starring role given to Papa Lazarou; the second is a Benjamin/Harvey flashback which provides the evening’s prime gross-out moment (and it does have some competition). It’s an absolute peach, with pretty much every bodily fluid you can imagine flying about.
Les McQueen gets to deliver a rocking, but queasily funny (in a Yewtree kind of way) 70s style musical number, before we get to the show’s finale. Who else could it be, but Edward and Tubbs? They finish the night in their local shop, coming face to face with a canvassing Tory MP, before planning an explosive end for Papa Lazarou, which also includes a cameo for one Hilary Briss.
This is the first time I’ve seen the LoG live, but on the way out, overhearing a few other punters who’ve seen them a number of times before, tonight’s was well up to the standards they expected. That it was funny goes almost without saying, but the things that impressed me most were the clever integration of video with the stage work, and the quality of the set design, which made the whole thing move at pace, and didn’t let up. It’s clearly a show which has taken a lot of careful planning and creative energy, and it really paid off, because it was quite wonderful. But then, given their back catalogue, and the associated projects they’ve done, I’d hardly have expected anything less.