I’m sure I won’t get sued for libel by saying there’s something decidedly warped about Tom Lehrer.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Lehrer is a Harvard-educated maths professor who wrote witty, satirical and immensely clever songs that are as fresh and relevant today as when he penned them in the 1950s and 60s.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a history lesson, just a bit of background to the Tomfoolery now taking place at Sandton’s Theatre on the Square.
While the lyrics are still absolutely relevant today, the tunes are delightfully old fashioned. All piano, drums and double bass rather than guitar and synthesiser. It’s genteel music that delivers a helluva punch when you listen – as you must – to the sharp and incisive words. Each song is introduced with lines as sharp and ridiculously funny as the lyrics that follow.
The brilliant cast features the heavyweight trio of Kate Normington, Malcolm Terrey and Matthew Stewardson, although there’s nothing heavy about the fey Malcolm Terry. He’s toned down his usual over-the-top campness to a degree where his perfect comic timing and flawless delivery are allowed to shine. It’s an excellent performance.
Normington tops the trio, offering a range of accents and facial expressions that add a delicious finishing touch to the already entertaining script. A highlight is her Irish Ballard, where she sings the tale of a murderess who does her family in one by one. Close your eyes and you could be in an Irish folk club, but keep them open to catch the comic antics of the men as they pop up to chant the annoying chorus.
Stewardson does less of the wit but much of the big bass singing. He makes an excellent puppy-like schoolboy when Normington shines in New Math, a decades-old song that now seems almost prescient as it ridicules outcomes-based education.
National Brotherhood Week that highlights racism is also as relevant now as it was way back in the days of lynchings.
The trio of actors are all great singers too, which is clearly essential since this is a musical, with Shaun Smith on piano, Graham Curry on double bass and Neil Etteridge on drums.
Some of Lehrer’s songs are decidedly unsavoury, though you you’ll be laughing while you cringe. At first you wonder what sort of mind writes a song about Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. That’s just the mild introduction. By the time we get to I hold Your Hand in Mine and the Masochism Tango his mind is one place you don’t want to go.
His genius was in getting his messages across while rhyming the most obscure words in complicated tongue twisters. That fact that his lyrics would leave most singers stumped just confirms the solid class of these actors.
Review by Lesley Stones
Tomfoolery runs at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square until Saturday, 13th February 2010. For further information follow the links alongside.