Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London

3 out of 5
Bill Bailey

Instrumental in everything ... Bill Bailey. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Does Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata have its roots in the cockney knees-up? Why is the French horn suitable for advertising Castrol GTX? Not all comedy is equipped to answer these questions. But tonight, Bill Bailey has the BBC Concert Orchestra in tow - one hell of a tool to apply to his longstanding obsession with sound, music and those noodly areas in between.

  1. Royal Albert Hall ,
  2. London
  3. SW7 2AP
  1. Until Friday
  2. Box office:
    020-7589 8212

With Bailey, we expect the surreal. But there is more oddness at play here than usual, as the hairy comic scurries about the Albert Hall stage, cracking jokes while an orchestra (led by conductor Anne Dudley) plays Nokia ringtones and the theme tune to Emmerdale Farm. The oddness relates partly to the evening's uncertainty of tone. Is it, as billed, a "remarkable guide to the orchestra"? Or a musical comedy show with a grander-than-usual backing band?

It starts as the former, as Bailey details the history and properties of each instrument: oboe comes from the French haut bois; the bass clarinet perfectly soundtracks the TV villains of the 1970s. This is engaging, even educational stuff - but soon devolves into workaday Bailey fare, as he plays a spoof Chris de Burgh song.

It's a waste to have the orchestra just beefing up Bailey's mildly amusing songs. Far better when the instruments are foregrounded; when music (Rossini; the EastEnders theme) is deconstructed to comic effect, and the orchestra provides the punchlines. Sometimes that's difficult - comic timing is complicated when 72 musicians are involved. But elsewhere, it's sublime, as stately form meets daft content, and Bailey runs riot in the candy shop of his musical imagination. A four-man performance of Saint-Saëns' The Swan on Alpine cow bells shows the giddy heights of pleasure to which this curious collaboration might yet aspire.

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Comedy review: Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra / Royal Albert Hall, London

This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday October 17 2008 on p44 of the Reviews section. It was last updated at 16.19 on October 17 2008.

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