Tom Carradine: Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long: Live at the Bull & Gate

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Tom Carradine

Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long: Live at the Bull & Gate

Wilton’s Music Hall, London, U.K., February 6, 2016

Reviewed by Fiona Coffey for Cabaret Scenes

Tom-Carradine-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212An evening at Wilton’s is an occasion in itself. The world’s oldest surviving Grand Music Hall is steeped in London’s East End history. Its high stage, domed ceiling and deep, overhanging balcony are unmistakable reminders of a Victorian music hall heyday, while its bare brick walls and timber floors happily accommodate 21st century urban tastes. It was the perfect setting for Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long, a form of entertainment that locates itself firmly in a pre-digital, pre-vinyl musical age, yet has been gloriously re-created by Tom Carradine to charm a modern audience.

A music hall and old time music afficionado, Carradine is a pianist and musical director who has worked extensively on London’s musical theater and cabaret scenes. For Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long he draws upon a particular British tradition, the spontaneous gathering around an upright piano in a pub or living room to belt out well-loved songs. In Cockney-speak, this might be termed “a good ol’ knees-up” – referencing the dancing that inevitably accompanies this form of drink-fuelled merry-making. At the heart of this tradition are classic songs that have been passed down through generations. Originally popularized by music hall stars of the day, their uncomplicated sentiments, uplifting melodies and easily memorized lyrics are made for community singing. Whether it’s “Down at the Old Bull and Bush” or the almost unbearably poignant “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” many of these songs reinforce a cultural understanding that “’avin’ a laugh” or at least maintaining cheery stoicism is the best way to deal with adversity and crisis.

What is surprising is the extent to which these old-fashioned songs linger in the collective memory. Part of the genius of this show is in the way it harnesses the delight that greets a long-lost song. It feels like an old school reunion where all the classmates you wanted to see introduce themselves in quick succession. Songs are delivered at pace, grouped into cleverly themed medleys with little time to linger in between. Carradine keeps the format fresh by adding more recent favorites—show tunes, one or two songs from the sixties and seventies, and a hilarious TV sitcom medley. Into the hopper they go, and given the same piano treatment, they all sound as if they belong together.

Audience members are put through their paces, singing every line of every song, not just the choruses or the catchphrases, aided by lyrics projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. Participation is not obligatory, but soon becomes compulsive. When three hundred people are singing their hearts out, and yelling “’ave a banana” whenever they feel like it, any vestiges of British reserve simply melt away. And as Carradine points out reassuringly, “the more you drink, the better you sound.” Two hours, and over a hundred songs later, a sense of collective achievement and goodwill pervades the room. It is a hugely joyful and unexpectedly potent experience where the audience and the songs are the stars of the show.

Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long is a deceptively simple, winning formula, brilliantly executed and promoted. Nothing can replace the live experience, but the album is a great souvenir that captures the warm atmosphere generated by this show. Rather like the most capable and sensitive wedding planners who have organized everything so perfectly that their presence is felt only in the absence of drama and disarray, Carradine makes no attempt to dominate the proceedings. Both in this show and on the album recording, he has cast himself in a facilitative role—introductions are brief and kindly; the space given to Carradine’s solo voice is only intermittent. In some ways, this is a pity, as Carradine sings and plays beautifully. He also cuts a dashing figure with his distinctive waxed moustache.

This is one of those shows that is destined to grow, perhaps exponentially, in popularity and appeal. As it does, it will be great to see more of Carradine’s presence and personality shine through. This can only enhance what is already a terrific night out. It would be a mistake to assume that Carradine’s Cockney Sing-a-long appeals only to natives who already understand the Cockney idiom. Rather, it is a must for anyone who is curious enough to sample London’s rich musical heritage, and ‘ave a bloomin’ good time as they do.

Fiona Coffey

Fiona Coffey joins our review team as a cabaret enthusiast and jazz singer, just as she makes her sell-out debut on the London cabaret scene with a self-devised tribute to her alter-ego Mrs. Robinson. She has hosted jazz evenings and performed at a number of venues including The Crazy Coqs, The Pheasantry, and 606 Club. In her day job she is a leadership development coach, travelling around the globe, working with a hugely diverse population of executives, as they grapple with the challenges of leadership and organizational change. Having recently expended most of her writing energies on her doctoral thesis, she welcomes the opportunity to entertain and inform a different audience through Cabaret Scenes.