What we have in Bounder and Cad is a duo to watch who have the talents and smarts to embed themselves in a niche of their own svelte and louche creation within the broader British cabaret scene. Implicit craft will and should soon find very explicit rewards.
The Pheasantry can be a difficult venue to play, with a layout that does not give the performers a clear sight of all the audience, and dinner service taking place in and around the sets of songs. You either have to get out there and grab the audience through charisma or reel them in gently through gentler arts. But you have to make a clear choice between those two, and if Bounder and Cad took a little while to settle it was because they initially wavered before – rightly – settling for the second option, best suited to their smooth, slinky sophisticated appeal.
Adam Drew, Guy Hayward and pianist Ben Comeau are all products of Oxbridge college choral music which gives them a nice line in a capella precision and precisely projected diction. They have taken this excellent technical foundation and secularised it, finding witty, pointed lyrics in the manner of Coward and Porter to apply to familiar standards and sometimes their own melodies too. They are indebted to Kit and the Widow and Fascinating Aida but have found their own subjects.
There is great facility here, but also some scrumptious polysyllabic rhymes and arch commentary on contemporary political and cultural events. It is no accident that they have been invited to perform at 10 Downing Street and many other establishment venues: they are of that world and know how to mock it in the most deliciously knowing of terms. You have to have a sense of tradition before you can suborn it and satirise it, and this they achieve with daring and – mostly – good taste, or sometimes, quality bad taste…..
Their two sets comprise a generous number of items: they began with their Disney Prince Ali parody devoted to ‘Prince Harry’. While it was understandable to kick off with this item, given it was their breakthrough number, it is not ideal as warm-up, and would have had more impact just before the interval once the audience were attuned to the style of the ensemble.
However, there are a number of excellent parodies and skits in the first half, most notably a ‘homage to fromage’ called Crackers for Cheese, and a delicious re-write of The Lady is a Tramp celebrating ‘yummy mummies’ and ‘canny grannies’ with a satire that had bite but avoided cruelty. Perhaps my favourite was a very knowing parody of The Teddy Bears Picnic devoted to the elite hampers of Glyndebourne, which picked off its targets with absolute precision.
The only missed musical opportunity was a slightly tame rendition of Anything Goes where a complete up-to-date rewrite with topical references would have brought down the curtain even more emphatically than the midweek drinking song Just one drink, for all its evocation of ‘panadol & bacon’ as the best hangover cure, and some witty musical quotes from Brahms and Verdi (though Liszt was nearby) in the accompaniment.
What was missing in this first half was nothing musical, but rather contextual. A cabaret set relies just as much for its success on smooth and clever link material with a clear story to tell, and in the first half at least the link material was still a bit clunky with the connection from Song A to Song B descending as subtly as the Monty Python foot.
Things were very much more supple and fluent in the second half where the duo framed the songs around their relationship and adventures, and drew the audience into the material more effectively. The songs were no better or worse, but they came over better simply because the context was right and made sense.
More experience on the cabaret circuit will surely put any remaining imbalance right: after all it does not matter at all whether the narrative is true, merely that it is consistent for the purpose of finding a series of hooks for the songs, as Dillie Keane and other super-troupers of the cabaret stage show again and again.
The second half was altogether tighter for this reason even though the songs were broadly similar in tone and reach. There was a measurably warmer and resonant and interactive audience response too. The material was more risqué and taboo but also more original: highlights include a sly tribute to the recently-departed coalition government and its ‘so well hung parliament’; an in-depth tribute to the sperm whale that told you more about plankton than you would ever want to know; and a saucy riff on the Downton Abbey theme that might cause knowing raised eyebrows.
One of the delights of the second half was the showcasing of Ben Comeau’s improvisatory skills born doubtless from idle hours in an Oxbridge organ loft: audience members were invited to suggest a film theme and a musical style in which it might be played. As a result we were treated to The Pink Panther in the style of a Bach fugue; Star Wars shifting gears from Debussy to Mozart, and – best of all – The Great Escape turned into a shimmer of Philip Glass.
The show then gathered to a whipped peak in a lovely version of the ‘Flour/Flower duet’ for Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, a VERY inclusive version of Let’s do it, and, as a special encore, a duet for Alexis Tsipras and Angela Merkel, Greece Frightenin’ mordantly set to the music of Summer Nights. This gave a final serious edge to an evening, sending us away with a thought appropriate for the Age of Trumpery: ‘Lose your marbles, but don’t go bust.’
If a Bounder is someone who is not a gentleman but thinks he is one, and a Cad is someone who is a gentleman, but does not behave like one, then what we might infer about this combo is that they are astute observers of the gaps between appearance and reality, fully apprised of the subtle gradations of snobbery and hypocrisy in English public life, and ready with a full bucket of charm and wit to scatter glamour and dismay over the most unpromising of subjects.
What we have here is a duo to watch who have the talent and smarts to embed themselves in a niche of their own svelte and louche creation within the broader British cabaret scene. Implicit craft will and should soon find very explicit rewards.