Arriving at the grand surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall, gig-goers might be surprised that they’re given a paper hat and a party horn. The man on the door looks a bit embarrassed, and, in response to quizzical looks says, apologetically, “It’s his forty-second birthday today.” Ah. Welcome to the world of The Divine Comedy, aka Neil Hannon, where nothing is done entirely conventionally.
The evening starts with a support slot from Pugwash, AKA Thomas Walsh, Hannon’s sometime collaborator in their cricket-themed side project The Duckworth Lewis Method. Walsh’s ENO-themed pop is moderately catchy and pleasant, though the obviously partisan audience shuffles and coughs, and patiently waits for the appearance of Hannon, who duly takes his bow, immaculately attired in a sharp suit.
The Divine Comedy’s commercial fortunes have waned somewhat since their heyday, when they had novelty hits such as ‘National Express’ and ‘Something for the Weekend’, songs which, though catchy, tended to obscure the more interesting side of their albums. You wouldn’t know it though from this sold-out performance, with a palpable air of excitement amongst the firmly middle class attendees, including none other than longstanding fans Chris Addison and Graham Linehan, the latter of whom, of course, Hannon wrote the ‘Father Ted’ theme tune for.
Hannon has spent much of the past couple of years since the release of 2010’s ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ touring solo, stripping away the lavish orchestration of the records, and now he offers a fully honed act full of dry wit and lyricism, albeit one that comes with (choreographed?) moments of lyrics being fluffed and the wrong chords being played. The audience love him for it, and cheer all the more loudly as Hannon self-deprecatingly pokes fun at his “mediocre” piano playing.
As it’s his birthday gig, there are a few special treats in store, not least a couple of unexpected special guests early on. Keane’s Tom Chaplin comes on to sing the unloved lead single from the Nigel Godrich-produced ‘Regeneration’, ‘Love What You Do’, and it ends up sounding rather like an early Keane song; an improvement, of sorts. Better is a huskily voiced Alison Moyet, who is a powerful presence on two songs, a cover of Yazoo’s ‘Don’t Go’ and a stentorian rendition of ‘The Certainty of Chance.’
Rumours had been swirling around that there was a bigger surprise in store, and so it proved; a pile of presents falls apart to reveal a string quartet, and Hannon smilingly announces that as a birthday present to himself he will play the fans’ favourite album, 1994’s ‘Promenade’, in full. The audience promptly have a collective orgasm, and the following forty minutes pass in rapt silence, only punctuated by fervent applause. As the soaring ‘Tonight We Fly’ comes to a jubilant climax, you could hear the cheers, and the party streamers, from outside. A well-chosen encore, including the great infidelity saga ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and a guest appearance from Hannon’s daughter with a birthday cake wrap things up just this side of sentiment.
So, an evening that had its fair share of comedy, intentional and otherwise. But Divine? Absolutely.
Words by Alexander Larman
Photos by Richard Gray