Home » London Theatre Reviews » Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You | Review

Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You | Review

This magnificent show is totally sold out so I’m writing from the point of view of the appreciation of a work of art. Tom Lehrer, not to be confused with Franz Lehár, author of The Merry Widow – a mistake I’ve made – is a New York Jewish songwriter still alive and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A confluence of Sigmund Freud, Groucho Marx, and Woody Allen, he is best known for his song ‘The Elements’, about the periodic table. A creative genius, he helped create the satire boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Then at the height of his game, he gave up writing and retired to teach maths at the University of California Santa Cruz, hence the title of Francis Beckett’s play. In this, he uncannily repeats the pattern set by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who gave up his philosophy work to teach maths, and Art Garfunkel who quit Simon & Garfunkel, also to teach maths. The play is biopic and a jukebox musical. It is highly entertaining and utterly fascinating. In under two hours, we get a full biographical chronology and musical exposition of Tom Lehrer’s life, times and music. Well done to director Isaac Bernier-Doyle for momentum, pace and succinctness. Highly recommended but sold out. That’s a typical Lehrer paradox. He is a master of self-deprecating irony and deflation.

Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You. Photo credit: Simon Jackson.
Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You. Photo credit: Simon Jackson.

Shahaf Ifhar is totally believable as Tom Lehrer. He looks like him, sounds like him, and moves like him. This comparison is easy because of the two lifesize cardboard cutouts of Lehrer that occupy the stage. One from his youth, the other from his maturity. Looking back and forth from the cutouts to Ifhar I was convinced that Lehrer was in the house. Tremendous verisimilitude. He has clearly studied the life of Tom Lehrer in some detail. The play is structured as a set of questions from a young interviewer Iris (Nabilah Hamid) who wants to know why Lehrer gave up writing to teach Math as the Americans call Maths. This Socratic dialogue provides the frame for a series of musical numbers in which Ifhar and Hamid perform exceptionally well. Piano accompaniment and musical direction from Harry Style are outstanding.

The songs are quite simply masterpieces of satire. Lehrer’s style is seriously funny. By that, I mean that he is both amusing and profound. He takes down the Catholic Church in ‘The Vatican Rag’, the Scouts in ‘Be Prepared’, Bob Dylan and the counter-culture in ‘The Folk Song Army’, and the military in ‘It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier’. He even manages to make fun of nuclear war in ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’. He warned of the dangers to the environment in ‘Pollution’ long before the issue became fashionable. He sent up the official race relations industry in ‘National Brotherhood Week’. He could be faintly absurd as in the macabre ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’, a riposte to Neil Simon’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’. And in his tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘I am the very Model of a Modern Major General’ from The Pirates of Penzance, he created the ultimate guide to the periodic table, the comic tongue twister to end all tongue twisters: ‘The Elements’. Pure magic, pure joy, pure delight.

The show is sold out but it’s that good that I think a West End transfer may be in the offing. If so then you are in for a treat.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Tom Lehrer – Shahaf Ifhar
The Interviewer – Habilah Hamid
Musical Director and pianist – Harry Style

Tom Lehrer’s songs burst onto an unsuspecting world in the 1950s. “Mr. Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste” wrote The New York Times, and Lehrer insisted on putting the quote in big letters on his record sleeves. But in 1960 Tom Lehrer gave up writing and performing. He emerged to issue one more record in 1965, and that was it.

Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You investigates why singer songwriter Tom Lehrer gave up writing and performing at the height of his fame, and spent the rest of his working life as an obscure Maths lecturer. Along the way, you’ll find some of Lehrer’s greatest hits: The Elements, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, I Hold Your Hand in Mine, I Gave it to Agnes, The Vatican Rag, and others.

The show is written by author, journalist, contemporary historian and playwright Francis Beckett, whose last two plays, A Modest Little Man and Vodka with Stalin, played to packed houses at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. His earlier work includes the radio play The Sons of Catholic Gentlemen, which won the Independent Radio Drama Productions award and was broadcast by LBC.

Tom Lehrer is Teaching Math and Doesn’t Want to Talk to You
28 May to 9 June 2024
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

I Do! I Do! at Upstairs at The Gatehouse – November 2019
The Marvelous Wonderettes at Upstairs at the Gatehouse – April 2019

Author

  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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