Kit & the Widow Kit Hesketh-Harvey & Richard Sisson
Reviewed by: Edward Lewis
Reviewed: 13 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Inexperienced recitalists, when appearing on stage, occupy the space almost apologetically. More confident singers give the impression of temporarily borrowing part of the floor for their modest purposes – a sort of performer’s timeshare system. Arrogant vocalists appear to storm the stage, determined to leave their heavy impression. But when Kit Hesketh-Harvey gambols on to the platform, he simply owns it, no questions asked. Unassuming but all-knowing, larger-than-life yet all too human.
This consummately confident master-craftsman makes no pretence of hiding his social and intellectual snobbery – indeed, some of his songs would lose their impact if he did – and in openly sharing this distaste with Richard Sisson (hereafter referred to, for reasons lost, as The Widow) we, the audience, are gently invited into their select club. Any fleetingly distasteful sentiments are instantly forgiven, because they are automatically our sentiments too.
With satirical cabaret, of course, there are always going to be risqué themes and even personal broadsides towards celebrities. But this gentle pair never even edge towards unpleasantness, in the traditions of a comedy from an age almost passed, where one can laugh without hurting others. The closest they came was with “When I’m Sixty Four” – a sly look at Sir Paul McCartney’s unfortunate personal life. But, even here, the lines closest to the bone were delivered by The Widow, or even simply left unsaid, hanging in the mirth-filled air in a nod of intellectual trust towards the audience.
Before we try to dissect the evening further, it has to be stated, unequivocally, that I haven’t laughed so hard since Tesco introduced Thick Baby Wipes, or someone suggested I teach rap to a music class in a Camberwell primary school. Everything Kit & the Widow did, be it sing, play or banter between them and us, was very, very funny. I have never seen an audience in the Wigmore Hall (hereafter referred to as “The Wiggy”) so beside itself with laughter. Wigmore Hall audiences aren’t like that: they applaud politely … in the right places.
Writing notes for this review, I was constantly tempted to scribble down each remarkably funny line uttered by the pair, and use each to demonstrate their sparkling wit and ingenuity. It soon became apparent that this would not work as I would have found myself transcribing their entire performance.
Most importantly, the inherent wit in their songs is just that – actually inherent in the song itself. Yes, the lyrics can often be succinctly funny, but so too is the music, be it composed for the occasion, or parodied and copied from well-known sources. The use of a Rossini overture to convey the, dare I say it, pretentiousness of Glyndebourne, the accompaniment of Chopin to the mourning of Poland’s exodus of plumbers, and Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of The Mountain King’ to explain the unnatural presence of Norwegians on the Bakerloo line – all give a glimpse of the genius that lies behind the enduring appeal of these two performers.
The astonishing parody of Stephen Sondheim’s musical style hints at a far deeper understanding of musical structure than either would admit to. Perhaps more astonishing still, and certainly further evidence of Hesketh-Harvey’s versatility, was the number proving beyond reasonable doubt that Dame Edith Sitwell was the inventor of ‘garage-house’, having “been the person who put the ‘c’ into ‘rap’”. This being, in an ever so subtle way, a plug for their latest recording – Walton’s “Façade” with the Southbank Sinfonia.
As if this normal slew of songs were not enough, their other talents were dragged, kicking and occasionally screaming, into the limelight. The Widow’s rendition of Tom Lehrer’s “Periodic Table”, to his own accompaniment, was fast, flippant and faultless. And if further proof were needed of Sisson’s talents, his arrangement of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from his own music to Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” provided it. This was sung by one of the drama’s stars, Samuel Barnet, in the guise of a ‘Special Guest Star’. This was probably to avoid presenting him in the guise of a highly talented singer, which he is not, and nor does he pretend to be. His thinner higher range was carefully avoided as often as possible, but his lightness of tone was touching, and brought home the humanity inherent in the song.
Touching humanity was also strangely introduced by Hesketh-Harvey’s totally serious “Rockabye”, written on the birth of his daughter. We saw the sensitive, caring man, with whom we could, once again, empathise; empathy I also felt with his violin performance of ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’. If he is an accomplished violinist he hid it well, but he proved beyond all reasonable doubt that that particular piece can be adequately performed with one finger on anything with approximately four strings.
It would be easy to continue to extol the many virtues of this pair, but would serve no useful purpose. Anyone who can persuade a Wigmore Hall audience to join with them in the rendition of an Indian restaurant takeaway menu to the tune of ‘Nessun Dorma’ needs no further praise. From the minute they finished their seasonal encore of “Jesus, What A Way To Spend Your Birthday”, I knew I had to seem Kit & the Widow again.