This was a very accomplished evening of music and anecdote that managed to get quite close to the elusive heart of Mr Porter, while celebrating his manifold gifts. It was heartening to see so many younger people in the audience quite clearly enraptured by this elegant, clever, yet emotionally deeply honest music, and Griffiths does great service by bringing this repertory to the fore for a new generation.
A red piano (the gift of Elton John), a decanter of what looks like malt whisky, a room set out with cocktail tables, and the stage is set for an evening in the company of Mr Porter, courtesy of the Australian singer Michael Griffiths, who is also bringing his versions of both Annie Lennox and Madonna to London this year.
As Griffiths hobbles painfully to the stage impeccably dressed in bow tie and blazer you realize this is to be a lot more than simply a recital of Cole Porter standards. Instead it is an exploration of his life and career punctuated by songs familiar and unfamiliar. The image of effortless privilege and carefree carousing that Porter’s milieu and self-image provoked was belied by the reality which contained many vicissitudes and much physical suffering. Just as the carefully polished surface of Noel Coward’s life was very different from the reality below, so Griffiths shows us just how hard Porter had to work at time to ensure that there even was ‘another opening, another show’.
It is no easy task to perform these songs at the best of times. The piano accompaniments are far from straightforward and pacing needs to be absolutely spot-on in each case, if the complex rhythms are to be projected, and the glittering words delivered at a speed where they can be understood and relished as well as heard with energy. Griffiths is very successful in the latter task, ensuring that nuance as well as humour gets across to the audience. He has the tone and precise timing needed, and while his pianism nearly comes unstuck in a few places, given all the other tasks he is trying to perform that is quite forgivable.
For he is not just delivering the songs, he is enacting the life too, trying to involve the audience in the evening and pretending to have two shattered legs (‘Josephine’ and ‘Geraldine’, as Porter wryly and bravely called them after his near-fatal riding accident); so there have to be a few compromises somewhere.
It is impressive how Griffiths links the material. Here the art lies in concealing art so that the anecdotes flow naturally from one song to another with a seeming inevitability that in fact rests in careful craftsmanship, just as is the case with a Porter song, which cultivates naturalism but relies on exquisite artifice. Sometimes he also smuggles in some underscore piano so that he can anticipate or hint at a song that is further down the line or relevant to the event under discussion. So De-lovely was the back-drop for an account of Porter’s well-upholstered marriage to long-suffering Linda, and their move to Paris, and I’ve got you under my skin was a natural segue from the story of Porter’s real (male) love of a lifetime, Boris.
The audience became thoroughly involved in Let’s do it as Griffiths got us to join in the chorus, just the first of several instances in which he broke down the ‘fourth wall’, and jollied up a reserved English audience; and of course it was a pleasure to hear the ribald alternative version of You’re the top, though it is hard to believe this brilliant parody lyric was truly the work of straight-laced Irving Berlin.
Alongside the broader laughs, Griffiths did not omit the darker side. Love for sale was delivered with all the tight bitterness he could muster, and again and again you got the sense that the humour in Porter was a defiant determination to play the clown as the gentleman’s proper response to tragedy.
It is clear from all the stories told that work was in many ways an antidote to pain, especially in the case of Kiss me Kate, with which Porter restored his reputation after the war. As Griffiths sang the lines, ‘Another job that you hope, at last, will make your future forget your past’ you felt we had reached the heart of the matter.
Whether or not it was his intention, Griffiths’ version of Porter accentuated the minor over the major and brought out the loneliness amidst the effortless affluence. This approach made Night and Day seem like the quintessential Porter song, and it was delivered here with suave defiance. This was rightly the culminating point of the evening, though of course we also had to have Every time we say goodbye.
Interestingly, the very final item, a tribute to the Australians present and to Griffiths’ roots in Adelaide, was a song by Peter Allen, filled with a different and very geographically specific form of nostalgia.
This was a very accomplished evening of music and anecdote that managed to get quite close to the elusive heart of Mr Porter, while celebrating his manifold gifts. It was heartening to see so many younger people in the audience quite clearly enraptured by this elegant, clever, yet emotionally deeply honest music, and Griffiths does great service by bringing this repertory to the fore for a new generation. It is no surprise that this show has had great success on tour to date. While one might hesitate to draw meaningful comparisons between Cole Porter, Annie Lennox and Madonna, it is a great achievement on the part of Michael Griffiths that he can be true them all in his fashion.