The lyrics, pointless as they are, list all the elements on the periodic table that had been discovered when maths professor Tom Lehrer matched them to a Gilbert and Sullivan-style tune way back when.
Now Malcolm Terrey is singing the tongue-twisting lyrics in a show that strings together Lehrer’s wacky collection of songs with some equally satirical social commentary in between.
Lehrer’s lyrics are barbed, funny, insightful and often just plain warped. Some of his songs are funny for the sake of it, while others lampoon the social or political inequities of his day. The important thing is that his lyrics from the 1950s and 60s are just as relevant today, so this isn’t a quaint stroll down pre-memory lane, but an evening where modern problems are also ridiculed.
If you don’t like outcomes-based education then listen as Kate Normington gives a wonderful performance of “New Math”, stringing numbers together in a tongue-twisting song that tells us it doesn’t matter if you get it wrong, as long as you can demonstrate that you know how to do it.
Racism? Heck yes, that still makes “National Brotherhood Week” as applicable today as it did in America’s lynching deep south doggone decades ago.
Normington is a brilliant performer, and adds an extra dimension to the lyrics by her authentic accents and fabulous facial expressions. Terrey is also in peak performance mode, flitting around the stage and using his flawless timing and expressive eyebrows to emphasise any subtleties in the script. Not that there are many subtleties. The songs are bold and brash and, how shall we put it, adult, yet always funny even in their most unsavoury moments.
What Lehrer did brilliantly was word games, rhyming all sorts of obscure words in a way that’s immensely clever. The “Vatican Rag” is a real witty charmer, and anyone who can write lyrics where genuflect and transubstantiate just trip off the tongue has to be a twisted genius.
Joining Normington and Terrey on stage is Matthew Stewardson, who belts out a couple of big numbers before showing a languid, all drugged up rendition of “The Old Dope Peddler”.
The music is provided by Shaun Smith on piano, Graham Curry on double bass and Neil Etteridge on drums, and that’s the only dated thing about this show. The lyrics are still absolutely spot-on, but the tunes are definitely pre-pop. That makes a cool contrast of the genteel old-style music against the wicked wit of the words.
”Tomfoolery” has been around since Cameron Mackintosh adapted the songs for a stage show in the 1980s, and it’ll probably still be playing in another 20 years. But don’t wait that long before you see it.
By Lesley Stones
Tomfoolery runs at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square until 13 February.
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