“Some of you are probably thinking, ‘Gosh, they look a lot older,’” says Bret McKenzie, during one of Flight of the Conchords’ deliciously pregnant inter-song pauses. It is a remark met with a wall of knowing laughter: the screens either side of the stage succeed in underlining the star status of the duo, but also in highlighting the flecks of grey peppering their hair. Since they were last in the UK, the New Zealanders may indeed have become “dustier”, they may even have become rustier, but the pair are keen to reassure their Milton Keynes audience that they still know how to rock.
his confidence isn’t misplaced. The Conchords have lost neither their beguiling, monotonous demeanour nor their ability to perform laugh-out-loud, foot-tapping bangers while simultaneously deconstructing them. How easy it would have been to perform nothing but the hits – yet more than half of the 15 songs they play are comparatively new.
If anything, it’s the new songs that shine brightest, and not simply because they have the element of surprise. Their second song, a father-and-son number that begins tenderly, takes the first of several turns when McKenzie, the son, points out that his mother didn’t die, as his father likes to believe, but simply chose to live with another man. The premise alone might delight, but it’s the straight-faced vehemence with which both parties belt out the matter-of-fact lines, increasingly loudly so as to be heard over the pounding piano, that makes it stand out.
Their medieval pastiche, The Summer of 1353, is unimprovable. In a bid to “woo a lady” – how exquisitely well chosen their lyrics are – Jemaine Clement’s starry-eyed suitor walks around town, sprucing himself up. After he asks the florist to recommend a flower with a rose-like scent, the florist says that a rose would probably be best. Trying to hire a horse from which to woo the lady, Clement discovers that some form of ID is necessary. Having none, he sings: “I quickly had an unflattering tapestry made of me.”
The pair make no secret of the fact that the process of learning the songs is an ongoing one. “We’re a bad covers band of ourselves,” McKenzie says apologetically, after having to stop and restart when it proves too tricky to simultaneously sing and play the piano. The Conchords’ songs are complex, they are performing to 1,400 people, and they draw on an ocean of goodwill. That said, these road bumps, and the stilted “low-key crowd banter”, do sometimes, ever so slightly, take the shine off an otherwise magisterial performance.
With a range of elegant lighting effects, their own merch, and a string of shows at the O2 Arena, Flight of the Conchords are now bona fide rock stars, unlikely as it may have once seemed. Given their extraordinary talent, only a sourpuss would begrudge them their success. “We’d love to stay but we’d prefer to go,” they sing in Back on the Road. They could easily have carried on for another hour and not outstayed their welcome. Dustier, rustier, but absolutely irresistible.
It seems a long way from the roar of this large theatre to Naomi Sheldon’s debut solo show Good Girl at Trafalgar Studios’ intimate Studio 2 space, where every laugh, every gasp, and every creak from the audience is audible. When I see a man staring comatose at his lap for much of the first half (he perks up later when the show becomes more explicitly sexual), I hope for Sheldon’s sake that the lights render him invisible.
Good Girl is a show about emotion – “big emotion that leaves you feeling you’ll evaporate or explode”. It is the story of GG, a girl who grows up feeling out of place and disconnected from a body that feels as though it is leaking away from her. As she becomes a woman, she is still constantly trying to “feel something”, searching for sensation in meaningless sexual encounters. In dungarees, T-shirt, red flats and a gold hairband, Sheldon performs her hour on top of a rose-gold plinth in the middle of the stage. She is a consummate professional: her expressive, wide-eyed face demands to be looked at, and the monologue flies by without a fluffed line. It’s her character work and raw emotion that command most of the attention, but evocative lines are studded throughout: “I leave puffy clouds of skin in the sunlight,” says one of the protagonist’s eczema-afflicted childhood friends.
The great majority of tonight’s audience are women and, as well as the laughs provoked by Sheldon’s exaggerated antics, there are chuckles of recognition from those who see themselves in her recollections. “It’s the 90s, no one knows what the fuck’s going on,” gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Sheldon’s repudiation of the received wisdom that “good girls are neat; they have neat little emotions” is a welcome tonic in a show that feels buoyed by the recent surge in women speaking out about harassment. It is impossible not to admire its intentions. But its origins as an Edinburgh fringe show are a little too visible to fully transport the audience. The performance is so studied and the laughs so telegraphed that sometimes it feels like an audition piece, seeking a little too strenuously to win the audience’s approval.
Star ratings (out of five):
Flight of the Conchords: ★★★★
Good Girl: ★★★