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A Couple of Swells at The Duchess Theatre

Joe Stilgoe and Liza Pulman are show business royalty. Stilgoe is the son of Richard (broadcaster, songwriter and lyricist of The Phantom Of The Opera”) and Pulman is the daughter of actress Barbara Young and screenwriter Jack Pulman. Young died recently at the age of 92 and coincidentally had a full-page obituary in The Guardian on the day of this show which as Pulman said “made her very proud”. So apart from their undeniable talents, the couple have a lot in common and that shows in the chemistry the two have on stage in their show A Couple Of Swells.

A Couple of Swells. Photo credit Kieran Brimson.
A Couple of Swells. Photo credit Kieran Brimson.

On the day off for the usual production at The Duchess Theatre, The Play That Goes Wrong, Stilgoe introduces the couple as the act that might go wrong but there’s little chance of that as the two of them are consummate professionals. They’ve already been on tour in places such as Nottingham, Basingstoke and Aldeburgh (there are a couple of jokes about Norfolk) so the show is honed to perfection.

Consisting mainly of the Great American Songbook, it starts with Irving Berlin’s “Stepping Out With My Baby” and features the likes of “That’s Entertainment”, “Don’t Rain On My Parade”, “Mountain Greenery” and “What Are You Doing The Res Of Your Life”. Sprinkled in the first half are also more modern songs from Randy Newman (“Short People”) and Stilgoe’s own compositions “Harmony” and the song he wrote for jazz singer Liane Carroll “Seaside”. For most of the time, Stilgoe accompanies Pulman on piano but for one song he moves over to double-bass whilst Pulman plays the kazoo. To lighten the mood a little, Stilgoe does a wonderful version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” written by Frank Loesser and made famous by Danny Kaye and a song that harked back to long drives that Stilgoe enjoyed with his parents when he was a child.

After a short interval (and a change into a frock – her word, not mine), Pulman returns without Stilgoe and sings “I Love A Piano”, showing she’s no slouch on the instrument also. Stilgoe returns and they carry on with songs from Rodgers & Hart, Michelle Legrand and Jerome Kern amongst others. There’s also a delightful, poignant medley of Ray Henderson’s “Bye Bye Blackbird” and Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”.

One of the highlights of the second half was Stilgoe’s party piece where he asks for requests from the audience and then chooses four or five which he weaves into a medley changing the lyrics, adding bits of classical music and doing it all effortlessly on the fly. In this instance amongst the songs used were Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Nelly The Elephant”. The result was a triumph and the audience roared its approval.

After the very apt “Me And My Shadow”, the duo returned for an encore of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” before rushing off the stage and up the aisle to reach the foyer so they could chat with the audience as it left theatre and also sign some albums.

Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe are definitely a couple of swells. Pulman has a wonderful, crystal clear voice where every word is enunciated with precision – no subtitles needed for the university of the third age audience. Stilgoe is just a fabulous pianist who can play everything from Rachmaninov to children’s songs and everything in between superbly. Apart from their solo singing, they harmonise wonderfully and go together like a hand in a velvet glove. Their banter between songs shows they respect each other’s talents and they obviously enjoy each other’s company.

A Couple Of Swells is pure entertainment. It’s not cutting edge but it’s a joy to behold and if it’s your kind of thing, do try and get to see them on what’s left of this tour and if they tour again in the future.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

In a musical match made in theatrical heaven, Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe are A COUPLE OF SWELLS. The show features some of the most loved songs from the Great American Songbook, all-time favourites from Bernstein, Berlin, Rodgers & Hart and more, all given a contemporary spin and sprinkled with heaps of humour and sizzling chemistry.

A COUPLE OF SWELLS is reminiscent of the great pairings of Dudley Moore and Cleo Laine or Andre Previn and Doris Day. Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe have music in their bones, two unique talents at the top of their game and this brand-new show is original, artfully chaotic and quintessentially English, showcasing Liza’s exquisite vocals and Joe’s virtuoso piano playing.

‘A Couple of Swells’ at The Duchess Theatre on Monday 15 May

Tour Continues:
19 May 2023 Bath, Theatre Royal
20 May 2023 Bath, Theatre Royal
21 May 2023 Haverhill Arts Centre
01 June 2023 Cardiff, Acapela Studios

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