Like many, I first met Tom Lehrer in school, when our chemistry teacher put on the Elements song as part of, or perhaps in lieu of, a lesson. The names of the chemical elements sung to the tune of the Major-General’s Song has long been Lehrer’s most recognisable work, and it tells you much about the man himself; quick, funny, so very very clever. Yet it doesn’t quite touch on his powers of satire, which made him an international comic force in the 50’s, 60’s and beyond. Against a backdrop of Cold War nuclear panic, Lehrer cheerily sang silly, biting numbers on a wide range of topics that earned him generations of fans.
One of those is Adam Kay, of Amateur Transplants and Crims fame, whose Fringe-bound show, The Remains of Tom Lehrer hilariously revives one of the twentieth century’s sharpest wits for the twenty-first. Some songs keep all their original lyrics, but most are smartly updated. So Wernher von Braun is learning Korean instead of Chinese for his next rocket-based project and the Masochism Tango is less whips and trampling, more ‘members in blenders’ and cups of depravity being shoved into…well I’m sure you can rhyme. Kay is a fine lyricist, and So Long Mom (A song for WW3) is an especial success, with the Cold War tone easily replaced by one of the War on Terror. One can pretty well imagine some of the lines coming to pass: ‘So please send in a text/To tell us where you want bombed next’ as funny as it is a telling comment on today’s instantly accessible conflicts. Kay’s clear enthusiasm for Lehrer’s music combines brilliantly with his wry observations on diverse subjects, and there are enough suggestively dark comments littered throughout the evening to make Tom himself proud.
Between songs, Kay combines his own patter with a potted history of Lehrer’s career, including some wonderful anecdotes (applying to Harvard with a poem, inventing vodka jelly whilst in the army, amongst others). There’s even some audience participation, with everyone asked to provide a suitable adverb in Kay’s revision of the LY song. At the Fringe he’s bound to get some choice answers, but there were some funny enough ones on the night in London. How does Kay dress when he’s dancing in G-A-Y? Fabulously, fabulously, fabulous…ly.
At points you wish Kay would slow down and let people appreciate quite how funny he is. Many of the songs seemed to tumble out of him all at once, sacrificing some clarity for speed. He’s taking this show to the Fringe, and told the audience that the venue will be much larger than the Ambassadors’ 350ish capacity. If so, his delivery will have to be less rapid fire to engage an Edinburgh crowd. But that’s an easy fix, and the show will surely be a hot ticket at the festival. If you get the chance to see the performance, seize it with both hands, and enjoy a wonderful evening of the smartest satire this side of Harvard.
P.S. Sometimes the audience steals the show at a performance, and makes the evening eminently memorable. Sat next to me was a gentleman who at various points during the show claimed to be a surgeon, a former ballet dancer, and the happy recipient that night of six pints of Guinness. Of the three claims, I confess I only believed one of them to begin with. Come the end of the show though, and the finale of the Elements song, Kay asked if anyone in the crowd knew the words. About five minutes later, as my balletic surgeon pal took his bow following a perfect rendition, and accepted a prize of some vodka jelly from Kay (who did clearly know him), I was privately delighted to change my tune. An engaging end to a first class show.