The live revue, like the short story, is a form of entertainment to which the march of time was not kind. When revue shows were mainstream, their stars were celebrities. Flanders & Swann once toured the world performing classics such as Mud, Glorious Mud! and The Reluctant Cannibal (‘Have you been talking to one of your mothers again?’ demands the hero’s father). They pitched their humour quite widely but other performers were more specialised – including Maida Vale-born soprano Anna Russell, with her pin-sharp send-ups of the classical music world. Her numbers included a 22-minute summation of the Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the moody French art song, Je Ne Veux Pas Faire L’Amour.
As television ate away at live audiences, the satirical torch was carried into the recording studio. Nowhere did it burn more brightly than in the hand of Jake Thackray. Recorded in the 60s and 70s, his tales of fauxhemian rich girls and lush divorcees remain bitingly apposite to this day. A more surreal outrider was the brilliant Ivor Cutler – familiar to Beatles fans as the bus conductor in Magical Mystery Tour – whose satire plumbed more existential depths. The 80s saw the field reduced to two acts – the male duo Kit & The Widow, and the female trio Fascinating Aida. Both kept the faith through the arid days of Cool Britannia.
It is as well they did, because the rising tide of retro – together with a surfeit of opportunities for satire – is now lifting the revue show from the silt, and audiences are once again venturing out for a martini and a smirk. The young turks of this renaissance are a duo called Bounder & Cad. The Cambridge grads take to the stage like a pair of irreverent drama students. Their two-man show opens with an clarification of the difference between a bounder and cad: the former is a pretender to being a gentleman; the latter, a pretender to not being one. It could be thought that the tall, aquiline Guy Hayward is the cad; whereas the short, intense Adam Drew – with his noirish echoes of Dennis Price – is the bounder.
The topics of their original songs are the stuff of European life; love songs to drinking, cheese and older women in Range Rovers. There is a song about mating whales and another about Prince Harry’s romantic prospects. The Lady is a Tramp is updated to a Thackray-like tale of modern socialite (‘She gets too hungry to do the Dukan / She likes the theatre, but sleeps if she can’). Innuendo seeps from every pore. The piano accompaniment is provided by the preternaturally talented Ben Comeau. Something of a musical savant, he invites audience-requests that situate film soundtracks in the style of a given composer – with entrancing results.
If Bounder & Cad channel Flanders & Swann, then their contemporary and mentor Melinda Hughes is the heir to Anna Russell. Hughes’ guide to being an opera singer – Je Veux Diva! – advises: ‘Whether press call or gala, restaurant or aria / Always come in too loud and too… late!’ Such lines must earn a special place in the hearts of the silent sufferers of the professional music world. Another crowd-pleaser shares a subject with Bounder & Cad: the love life of Prince Harry. Here the heroine acquires so much Dutch courage that she is sick on her intended – only to receive an unexpected bonus the next day.
London’s queasy internationalism is stripped to the bone. In the absolutely caustic Where Have All The Despots Gone, a dictator’s ex-wife mourns her loss of ‘A pied à terre in Lowdnes Square / And New Year’s Eve around Tony Blair’s’. The theme of monied self-pity recurs in Foreign Affair, as a tax-exile postures about missing France from the comfort of South Kensington.
Because satire holds up a mirror to the world, it provides both catharsis and eerie discomfort. No subject has a stronger pull than the current occupant of the White House. Yet whereas a mainstream humourist can resort to grandstanding with a severed head, the satirical songwriter seeks a subtler poison. Thus Melinda Hughes’s Tweets In the Night: ‘He tweets about Muslims and gets into scraps / He Tweets about Isis, but only in CAPS.’ And Kit Hesketh-Harvey – formerly of Kit and the Widow; now in his current partnership of Kit and McConnel – sings: ‘He declares that he’s made a mint / But he’s a sevenfold bankrupt / Pretty soon you’ll all be skint!’ Here perhaps is the underlying cause of this revival: with the line between reality and satire pummelled to a micron thick, the latter is more welcome than ever.
Bounder & Cad will be performing at Brasserie Zedel, Piccadilly Circus, on October 26, November 21 and December 13
Kiss and Tell Cabaret, featuring Melinda Hughes, will be performing at Brasserie Zedel, Piccadilly Circus, on October 25
Kit and McConnel will be performing at the Pheasantry, Kings Road, on September 12, October 19 and November 21