Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
White Rock Theatre Hastings
Reviewed by Russell Cruse
Having announced that this was their Christmas show, and with fairy lights strung around a couple of mic stands, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB), opened with that ubiquitous staple of the supermarket “Xmas” playlist, Sleigh Ride. However splendidly arranged (and it was), some in the White Rock Theatre audience must have shifted uneasily in their seats, dreading they might be about to be subjected to an evening of light Yuletide fare.
Thankfully, the second number, a fresh arrangement of a UOGB staple, David Byrne’s Psycho Killer dispelled any such concerns.
This was the Ukulele Orchestra fans know and love; surreal, deadpan-serious and brimming with virtuosic musicianship. Having despatched Pharell Williams’ Happy in some style, the orchestra set about I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. As Dylan purists gnashed their teeth, the UOGB fashioned a louche, minor key, film-noir pastiche that Tom Waits might have turned out. This is what the Ukulele Orchestra does best: a somewhat mundane and pedestrian piece, dismantled, then rebuilt; pimped out in a four-string custom shop.
The instrumental incongruity for which the Orchestra is famous was, of course well represented. Amongst those given the UOGB signature treatment were Hawkwind’s Silver Machine, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, Song 2 by Blur and, in a suitably static Teutonic rendering, Das Modell by Kraftwerk.
The inclusion of such crowd pleasers runs the risk of the Orchestra being dismissed as a mere novelty act: a fact of which they are clearly aware, since there are numbers for which the histrionics have been left firmly locked in the uke cases. At this performance, a beautifully arranged and performed Every Step You Take was on offer, plus a frankly exquisite version of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. An astounding Slave to the Rhythm, Grace Jones’s eighties hit, proved to any uninitiated that a ukulele, in the right hands, can be a formidable little instrument.
But the fun is never far away. Acknowledging that UOBG accept at least partial responsibility for the fact that it now seems impossible to walk the streets of Britain without tripping over a ukulele band, it’s not long before the involvement of the audience is sought. As the lights go up, we see that a number of them have their own ukuleles to hand and are encouraged to join in with three Christmas songs, which they do with gusto and to the seemingly generous approval of the ukeless amongst us.
In a final flourish, the brilliant Ben Rouse, ignoring the pleas of the other members, embarks on a perfect setting of Handel’s G Minor Suite No 7 for Harpsichord. As he plays, the rest of the band appear to be picking up on the chord sequence and, one by one, begin to join in with, variously, Fly Me to the Moon, Love Story, Don’ Cha’, Wild World, Hotel California, Killing Me Softly and I Will Survive until all eight are singing in a grand fugue worthy of Bach.
The UOGB showed, as they have done for thirty three years, that making assumptions is incompatible with making great music. These are serious musicians who take their instrument but not themselves, very seriously indeed.
• Russell Cruse is musical director of the Benenden and Iden Green (BIG) Ukelele Jam.
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