We knew months ago that Flight of the Conchords were to tour UK arenas. We didn’t know until it was upon us that they’d start with a week’s run at London’s bijou Soho theatre. The run sold out without a shred of publicity, and the show – 90 minutes of blissfully funny musical comedy – reminded us why. They’re a little greyer, a little less deadpan, and with more starry CVs than when they last visited the UK eight years ago: Bret McKenzie won the 2012 songwriting Oscar and Jemaine Clement featured in Moana and The BFG. But tonight, the pair prove with plenty to spare that when it comes to silly and sophisticated comic songwriting, there’s still no one to touch them.
For long-term fans of the erstwhile “fourth most popular folk parody duo in New Zealand”, the evening supplies an intense hit of pleasure. And not just nostalgic pleasure: most of the songs are new, and easily scale the dizzy heights of their best work. Seagull – a hymn to freedom that comes complete with metatextual commentary – seems to be sending up “free as a bird” cliches, before a hilarious reversal. Piano ballad Father and Son finds dad and boy singing in counterpoint – and at crossed purposes – about a parental breakup. “You never know how love will end,” sings Jemaine’s sad dad, “Just don’t let her spend time with your handsomer friend.” Neat how that gauche coinage “handsomer” makes dad seem even more ridiculous. But the track is tender as well as daft, like their earlier Bus Driver’s Song, revived tonight. Or like the best work of Tim Minchin – their only rival as musical comic of the century so far – whose spirit is summoned when Bret takes to his piano.
It’s not all songs. The Conchords’ self-conscious “banter” is as arch as ever – if not delivered as blankly as in years gone by. They no longer pretend to be as gormless; now, it feels like they’re being themselves. But jokes at New Zealand’s expense are still a feature – including a hilarious dialogue about their origins as a two-piece – as is their tit-for-tat pedantry, which surfaces in both song and stage chat. (When Bret backs out of an impromptu stage dive: “talk us through that thought process,” insists Jemaine.) The aborted crowd-surf follows a recorder wig-out to cap the delightful Summer of 1353, a faux-madrigal about wooing. (“For a rose-like scent,” sings Bret, pedantically, “I’d probably go with a rose.”) Elsewhere, The Ballad of Stana tells the tale of doppelgangers in love in the wild west, and Shady Rachel spoofs Tom Waits and smoky jazz. It’s not top-drawer Conchords, and it may be under-rehearsed (“we’ll keep that in for the O2,” deadpans Bret). But it’s still a delight to watch the pair spar, improvise and backchat their way through it – certainly for those of us to whom, were he reading us the last rites, Jemaine Clement would still be irresistibly hilarious.
In all of this, there’s not a trace of the cash-in or catchphrase-slinging that can characterise TV stars’ live shows. I adore the Conchords, and they play several of their best-loved songs here: Carol Brown, The Humans are Dead. But if I’d never encountered them before, I’d still have to submit to the freshness, funniness and sheer musical quality of this set. It’s such a treat.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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