"Reliable" is a double-edged adjective in the hands of a reviewer. On the one hand, it means that the person or work in question will almost certainly not let you down; on the other, it suggests that they're equally unlikely to take you unexpectedly higher. And, as his current touring show Part Troll comes into the West End for a fortnight, comedian Bill Bailey is in danger of becoming reliable, and indeed reliant.
As Bailey says, he doesn't really do gags. He is, though, accomplished at the druggy ramble. "Marijuana hasn't done me any harm," he declares; "hasn't turned me into a bearded, babbling, bug-eyed Druid, has it?" Well, that's as good a description of him as any. And he plays to it. His curiosity is wide-ranging and undisguised; the evening I saw him, he touched on the Rig Veda, Diogenes the Cynic, Pavlov and Dawkins, getting decent gags out of them all without traducing them, and a heckle sent him off on a genuinely informed digression about Hitler's paintings. But he does lean solidly on his trademark vaguely doped-out perspective, recounting anecdotes about the daft stuff he's encountered and interpolating surreal remarks about various kinds of wildlife.
Musically in particular, he's a master. Many people, from Victor Borge to Rainer Hersch, have been classical music humorists, but Bailey stands alone when he does the same for popular genres. He thinks nothing of crooning "Three Times A Lady" in German, and most comedians will make sport of latecomers but only Bailey will play them to their seats with a cocktail-lounge "Girl From Ipanema".
However, the music also shows how long he's been working some of this material. His Portishead pastiche on a version of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is glorious (complete with electronic whoops from a theremin), but hardly up to the minute. The mixture of drum'n'bass with sampled George Bushisms is more topical lyrically at least; however, like a significant selection of the spoken material, it's barely adapted from a version which has been available on retail video for a couple of years now. Yes, two hours is a long slot to fill, but asking people to pay upwards of £30 for stuff they may well have seen before, and indeed own recordings of, is usually hard for a comedian to get away with. Even a reliable one.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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