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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
THE UKULELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN
Toynbee Studios, Whitechapel, London, December 15th, 2007
Bollywood Santa I know it’s Christmas. In the corner of the proudly world famous Lahore Kebab House there’s a token Christmas tree, decorated as an after thought, incongruous among the brightly lit shiny table tops and Bollywood soundtracks blasting from the huge flat screens on the walls.
It turns out the Photographer was last here in 1985 – the Cool Dudes who are with us for the evening haven’t been for about five years. And my how it’s changed – “We’ve got three floors innit” says our waiter. But the very high quality canteen Pakistani food (the lamb chops are legendary) lives up to its very high reputation. We’re just off the Commercial Road in the East End – this is real Jack the Ripper and Oswald Mosley territory. Five minutes away in Commercial Street is Toynbee Hall, a surprising muddle of neo-Gothic Victorian buildings with later additions. It was built in 1884 as the first ‘settlement’, those houses where brave middle-class social explorers (like Arnold Toynbee, after whom it was named) lived in the midst of urban industrial poverty (where we are was an impoverished Jewish and Irish ghetto in the nineteenth century, where famously even Thomas Cook could not organise a tour) in order to do ‘good works’ in the community. And we’re heading for the small theatre in the newly-named Toynbee Studios, which was built in 1938 and designed by Alistair MacDonald (son of first Labour Prime Minister, the biscuit loving Ramsay MacDonald) who made a living from designing cinemas, and it shows. But it’s a lovely little space, which thanks to us is aromatically reminiscent of Lahore.
Ukulele Orchestra
It’s the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s Christmas show, and a suitably eclectic audience, of very at-home old fashioned Labour P, corduroy jackets with elbow patches and all that, Boden families (impeccably-behaved children, Woodcraft folk I’ve no doubt), a few stray arty types, a National Childbirth Trust reunion night out, and behind us an irritatingly loud party from Kent, who quite clearly don’t get out much. On stage are the seven piece UOoGB – led by George Hinchcliffe and Kitty Lux. You possibly recall we saw them at the Cropredy Festival a few years ago – and what good fun they were. But in an intimate space such as this the first thing that strikes you (after the boorish braying of the men of Kent to our rear) is not the wittiness of the jokes and musical references, but rather the complexity of the arrangements and the outstanding playing of the entire group. I’m particularly struck by the whistling Jonty Bankes, who is playing the bass ukulele (it looks suspiciously like an acoustic bass guitar but best not to mention that) with great aplomb and subtlety. As it should be it’s at the heart of everything – and sometimes very much at the front, as with the inspired rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’, sung with hysterical enthusiasm by Will Grove-White.
Baccara There is a festive touch – the first tune is ‘Sleigh Ride’, followed by – in homage to Peter Brooke-Turner’s shiny dobro- style ukulele – Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’. Brooke-Turner, who, by the way, has an interesting alter-ego Tony Penultimate, adds vocals on songs such as ‘Yes Sir, I can boogie’ and ‘Shaft’. Yes – if you haven’t got it by now that’s the joke – ukuleles play rock classics, ranging from a Simon and Garfunkel style ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Splodgenessabounds’ brilliant situationalist punk classic ‘Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps please’, Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite’ and even Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s ‘Je t'aime... moi non plus’.
They finish the first half of the evening with a very clever version of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ which ends up with each member of the Orchestra playing and singing at least one different song, including ‘If I was a Carpenter’, ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Save the last dance for me’, ‘You sexy thing’, ‘I’m waiting for my man’ and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. But this was as nothing to the tour de force with which they ended the show, that “folk-song” from “The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire”, Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ sung wonderfully by Hinchcliffe in a jazz style. As I observed previously, it’s just what the sometimes achingly pretentious Ms Bush deserves. And just to remind us that it was Christmas they rounded things off with more meticulously arranged Christmas tunes. So with not a snow-ball throwing urchin in sight, we walked back through the frosty streets of East London to the car which was glowing in the warmth of a packed Kebab House. We nearly went in for seconds.- Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)



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