The Pocket Orchestra

The Pocket Orchestra – The Unlikely Lives of the Great Composers

Written by Graeme Garden to a concept by Callum McLeod who has arranged the music

Sylvester McCoy – The Showman

The Company:
Paul Arden-Griffiths (keyboards)Sebastian Bates (oboe)
Ian Harris (violin)
Emma Correlle (clarinet & saxophone)
Karen Fisher-Pollard (cello)
Ella Smith (flute)

Director – Richard Williams
Designer – David Collis
Lighting Designer – David Horn

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 1 May, 2006
Venue: Traflagar Studios 2, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1

Submit to the musical mayhem of “The Pocket Orchestra” for the next month at the Trafalgar Studios, in the hands of Graeme Garden (a third of “The Goodies” and mainstay of Radio 4 comedy for some three decades, not least “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”) and Callum McLeod, sometime musical director for Michael Ball, but here the arranger of a host of well-known classical tunes for a small ensemble of instruments that the quick-witted and talented cast of six perform. Or perhaps that should be seven musical performers, as The Showman – non other than Sylvester McCoy, dressed in some Dickensian get-up, bottomed (as opposed to topped) by red patent leather Doc Martens – and who is no mean exponent on the spoons.

With a running gag of a soap opera about 19th-century Romantic composers (the Schumanns, Brahms, Liszt and Dick Wag(g)ner) as a sort of musical “Eastenders” – indeed always introduced by the drum rhythm from the TV soap), “The Pocket Orchestra” is a whistle-stop tour across the wide plain of western classical music, from Thomas Tallis to John Cage. It’s rather hotchpotch, with a crazy spontaneous trajectory that can be mildly diverting or absolutely hilarious, but very rarely anything less, with the six performers – sometimes watched from the audience by McCoy – changing instruments and hats as they flit from one musical personality to another. While each has a principal instrument (as listed above), most also are engaged at some point or other on one of the two keyboards, as well as an array of percussion.

I particularly liked the gaggle of nubile women all but mauling Sebastian Bates’s Schubert, but he also played Liszt and Beethoven (with a trumpet mute for a hearing aid), while Ella Smith doubled Dick Wag(g)ner, moustachioed and cigar-smoking George Sand and pince-nez-wearing Pauline Strauss imposingly. Ian Harris, violinist, appropriately appropriated Paganini as well as Puccini, both sides of Schumann’s character (happy Eusebius; melancholy Florestan, or is that the other way round?) and rather hard-done-by Hans von Bülow, who lost Emma Correlle’s Cosima Liszt to Wag(g)ner.

The filleting of musical excerpts is expertly done and you won’t be disappointed in the performances, especially given that, apart from the keyboards, all are played from memory. Oh – one exception to that – the deliriously silly evocation of how Rossini wrote so quickly. There, Rossini is – McCoy with quill pen and manuscript paper in hand – scribbling like a maniac, while the Pocket Orchestra is playing the “William Tell” overture in wake. Sometimes they stutter on a note while waiting for him to produce a freshly minted page and off the renowned music goes again.

During the interval audience members are provided with paper bags. Perhaps I shouldn’t spoil the moment, but suffice to say that the second half’s performance of the climax of the 1812 Overture had better cannon effects than most recordings, with McCoy pointing out individual canons to be fired throughout the cacophony.

From the excerpt of Cage’s ‘silent’ 4’33” (McCoy conducting, as the score requests) to the aural joke that equates an ancient musical Babel with the most avant-garde composition (you can see it coming, but they present it in a way to catch you out), this evening may tell you little about composers that you don’t already know, but it’s great how inventive they are in presenting some of the daft stories classical music has thrown up.

The performance I was at started later advertised – 8.15 p.m. as opposed to 7.45 p.m.(whether that’s normal or not, I don’t know) – but, at two hours, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. And Sylvester McCoy’s virtuosity on the spoons is a wonder in itself.

Compared to Rainer Hirsch (who bills himself as a classical music comedian, something the Trades Description Act should investigate) this is a perfect evening; I suspect it would work well on radio, but the delight of the audience I was with was worth savouring in its own right.

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