SINGING ALL THE WAY DOWNHILL
“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
and I ache in the places where I used to play..”
Ah, Leonard Cohen! Nothing like it when you need it. Which isn’t always. But Arthur Smith, his unlikely doppelganger and lifelong fan, has built a reflective, funny, wise hour out of that necessary mood. “Part One”, a few years ago, majored on Cohen’s attitude to excess and addiction, something Arthur himself knows a good deal about. This one is focused more on “Depression, decline, diminishment, darkness and death”. And by the strange alchemy of music and art, the moment our battered host pronounces these words, everyone feels better. Happier. Cheerfully committed to “that little touch of madness that makes stability perfect”, the acceptance of human chaos from which wisdom springs.
It is partly a tribute show – and Smith has the musicality and the growl and the soul to perform the great songs like Tower of Song and Take This Waltz – partly an account of his own fandom , of Cohen’s despair (a lovely grumpy rendering of Alleluia) and subsequent revival of fortunes. There’s a brief exchange of letters too (Cohen concludes “Stay alive Arthur, and I’ll find you”). But it veers off in other directions: he annexes Christopher Reid’s marvellous poem about elephants throwing bones around in a strange ritual of grief, and Philip Larkin’s dead hedgehog; he speaks of his mother Hazel , her growing dementia and her unconquerable heart (clearly, in temperament, this splendid woman is the opposite of Cohen, except for the drinking).
He amuses himself reading out (with assistance from his backing-group girls) some terrible poems by Leonard Nimoy, to contrast with the gloomy majesty of Cohen’s lyrics. A couple of times he decides to behave like other standup comedians, attempting “enthusiasm” and giving up in disgust, then trying the pointless ranting style, and shrugging that off too.
Because he can. Because Arthur Smith, never willingly enrolled in the vile monkey-vain ranks of comedy celebriteees, never buys into any legend, including his own. It’s a uniquely consoling voice, expressing the wreckage we must all cling to. If Cohen’s songs are, “a manual for living with defeat”, this show sprung from them is a way to learn to love it.
box office 020 7478 0100 to 2 March