King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 24 October, 1997

Some fifteen to twenty minutes into last Friday's performance of Tales My Lover Told Me at the King's Head, I realised that I was missing singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Peter Blegvad a couple of hundred yards up the road at Union Chapel. Their second performance there the following night put to shame the twee jollities of Chris Burgess and Sarah Travis's musical.

The transatlantic troubadours and the North London writers aim to inhabit the same constituencies of subject matter: thirty/fortysomething life-angst, relationships, friendships, coupledom, children and the occasional dip into metaphysics. However, Wainwright, even after all these years, is as scabrous and poignant as ever; the fiendishly talented Blegvad (also a cartoonist for the Independent On Sunday) is a man about whose work the term "difficult" is a compliment; Tales..., on the other hand, would like to be Company or Follies, but achieves no more than that slew of ITV "comedy dramas" which have a place in no-one's heart except the programmers at Network Centre.

Three women in the fashion-photography business: one a serial divorcee, the second persistently slipping back into an abusive relationship, the third converting a long-term friendship into full-blown couplehood. Songs entitled "I Hate That Dog", "Second Class Male" and "Ballad For A Baby Unborn" along with an opening number, in overt Sondheim idolatry, called "These Are My Friends". Lyrics which show an obstinate fondness for rhyming mid-word: "Where the scener-/ y's much greener", or "With a dusting of rouge/ I complete the illusi-/ on I'm happy". Susie Blake in a floral dress which does not quite match the equally floral set. An occasional chorus of psychiatrists in white coats and bottle-bottom glasses. Lindsay Danvers (formerly, according to her biography, a member of girl group Toto Coelo) appearing, at one point, to put on a pair of tights in three seconds flat whilst beneath a duvet and without moving her legs. A final woman-discovers-her-assertiveness scene. That, in brief, is about the size of it.

There is an inescapable, acrid whiff of earnestness to the creation of the show; its wackinesses and profundities alike seem forced. If this is the best the North London mediocracy can do as regards wry but searching self-examination, I am rather relieved to have recently moved out of Crouch End. More laughter and more tears can be found in three minutes of Loudon Wainwright's "I'd Rather Be Lonely" or Peter Blegvad's "Lying Again" than in two hours of Tales My Lover Told Me.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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