Tom Lehrer has a lot to answer for.
There was a time when you couldn’t turn on Radio 4 or BBC2 without being subjected to annoyingly smug Oxbridge-educated young men in eccentric bow ties sitting at their pianos, singing witty, topical songs about inflation. Tom Lehrer was the bona fide genius on whose shoulders they all stood, and his influence continues to be felt.
The Remains of Tom Lehrer is a show developed by TV comedy scriptwriter (and former junior doctor) Adam Kay, which has played in the West End, on the Edinburgh Fringe and nationwide. He brought it to Cardiff as part of a season of classy weekend night cabaret-style events in the Ffresh Restaurant at the Wales Millennium Centre.
Tom Lehrer in 1960
Kay takes his seat at the piano to enthusiastic applause from a near-capacity crowd in the small venue; an audience which, it quickly becomes clear, consists almost entirely of long-standing Lehrer devotees. Clad, rather disappointingly, in a t-shirt rather than a dinner-jacket, he sets the tone by kicking off with We Will All Go Together When We Go, a cheery ditty about impending nuclear war, originally released in 1959, but updated by Kay to include references to Kim Jong Un and ISIS.
The show comprises a generous selection of Lehrer’s songs, minimally modified, and interspersed with biographical nuggets. Thus, we learn that he was born in New York in 1928 (and is still alive at the time of writing), went to Harvard at the age of 15 to study mathematics (Kay has unearthed the amusing poem which he submitted as part of his application), started playing satirical songs to amuse his friends, self-released an LP which gradually became a cult hit, and continued to tour and record until 1960, when he cut back on public appearances to concentrate on his academic career, only performing sporadically in the years that followed. We also discover that he claims to have invented the vodka jelly.
Kay does not attempt an impersonation, putting his own stamp on classics such as Poisoning Pigeons In The Park (Lehrer’s spin on urban pest-control, and a song on which he was complimented by Prince Philip whilst playing in London), Wernher Von Braun (his “tribute” to the Nazi rocket-scientist turned N.A.S.A. rocket-scientist), The Masochism Tango (which includes one of my favourite ever lyrics: “My heart is in my hand… yeucch!”) and I Got It From Agnes (about sexually transmitted diseases). The tone is light and scholarly, but the subject-matter rivals Nick Cave in terms of darkness and perversity.
As well as being a gifted pianist, Kay is also adept at audience banter (mostly focussing on our advanced average age), and teases us with several versions of Lehrer’s biggest “hit”, The Elements Song (the periodic table as written by Gilbert and Sullivan), climactically inviting a fan on-stage to sing it with him (nice work, Esther).
“Subversive” is an over-used word when it comes to the arts, but The Remains… highlights the significance of Lehrer’s achievements in sneaking songs about nuclear proliferation, racism and sexual non-conformism into the mainstream media. Wearing its intelligence lightly, Kay’s show is an affectionate and highly entertaining tribute to a remarkable, pioneering talent.