The Divine Comedy review – reassuringly civilised

“Hey!” ejaculates the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, waving his hands, “it’s … a gig!” We all know how he feels; personally, it’s my first time back in a room with a band since March. The singer’s amused disbelief chimes with tonight’s surreal setting; it is a very Neil Hannon sort of emotion, too. This is an artist with a career-permeating sense of being slightly taken aback.

The first track the Divine Comedy play of a short-but-sweet hour-long live set – Absent Friends – rings out all too poignantly in a socially distanced, one third-full Barbican hall. What a lot of people are not here tonight! Hopefully, they will be tuning in via the live stream. And what a lot of space there is in which to put your coat: clots of seats in ones and twos wear an orange stripe to denote occupation. Acres of brown velour separates them. The bar is shut; preordered drinks await, kept cool by gel discs most often seen on small children nursing a bruised forehead.

It is all tremendously, reassuringly civilised – but even in normal times, a Divine Comedy gig was never going to find the urbane Northern Irishman, tonight wearing a cream suit and brown scarf, stage-diving into a pit of shirtless acolytes. In the preamble to the live stream, Hannon flags this reprieve from Netflix as a set of “comforting, cosy, nice, all-the-ones-you-know-type songs”. Later, he will dedicate a song to the crew. “Please Mr Johnson, can we have some more?” he pleads, regarding the support still lacking for the creative industries.

And while it isn’t an excuse to hang up critical judgment, Hannon’s brand of knowing rompery may be just be the ticket right now – a reminder of all the lovely vanities heaped on the bonfire of 2020. A Lady of a Certain Age, from 2006’s Victory for the Comic Muse, is one of Hannon’s most nuanced character studies, telling the tale of a fading mid-20th century Cote D’Azur It-girl. Like some coda to The Boy Friend, the 1953 musical by Sandy Wilson, itself a homage to flapper-era drollery, the song neither endorses the woman’s absurdly hollow high life, nor punishes her for it. No one is writing songs about that sort of thing at the moment, much less playing them on double basses, grand pianos and accordions.

Not all that many people were writing songs like that back in the 1990s either, when the Divine Comedy started, and Hannon’s out-of-time outpourings served as a corrective to the cruder excesses of Britpop. You could, however, tentatively locate kinship between Hannon and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, two ironic over-thinkers obsessed with sex and erudite storytelling.

The Divine Comedy should have been celebrating 30 years of witty chanson with a residency here last month, revisiting all their albums back-to-back. That’s happening in 2021 now; this, then, is a radio edit of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, the band’s career retrospective, in which all the albums share disc-space with rarities and My Lovely Horse – a song Hannon wrote for the TV sitcom Father Ted.

No, the Divine Comedy do not play My Lovely Horse tonight. There is, though, a musical of Father Ted in the works. In a 2019 interview Hannon reckoned that it would actually be in theatres “at the end of a piece of string”; you imagine that goes double now. No one is of a mind to heckle for the Horse, either – a shame, since a little give-and-take would have punctuated the atmosphere of relieved enthusiasm.

Instead, there is a pick ’n’ mix of comedic milestones, in which the worst song from Hannon’s most recent album, Norman and Norma, shares airtime with his other worst song, National Express, which also happens to be the Divine Comedy’s greatest hit.

The band take a bow at the Barbican.
The band take a bow at the Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan

In case you missed 2019’s double album, Office Politics, Norman and Norma hymns a couple who revive their marriage by doing historical re-enactments. The best that can be said for the songs in which Hannon investigates the lives of imaginary ordinary people doing slightly contrived things – enjoying coach travel, getting frisky in Cromer – is that they are delivered magnificently, with his excellent band on point.

Hannon’s debt to Noël Coward and light operetta has never been in doubt, but today of all days, you wonder why he hasn’t gone all out to make more musicals (he has done some). The death of the librettist of Les Misérables, Herbert Kretzmer, was announced last week, and it is a pity that no fairy godmother ever brought West End impresario Cameron Mackintosh to a Divine Comedy gig.

This is clearly not the right outing for Hannon’s darker, more sincere songs, those indebted to Scott Walker and Jacques Brel, where bad things are not played for laughs. Fortunately, though, Hannon’s big-hearted paeans to beauty and love are many and varied. To the Rescue is a late-career keeper from 2016’s Foreverland, about Hannon’s love for his partner, Cathy Davey; the band exercise maximum restraint, and Hannon nurses a tiny beaker of red wine as the music swirls.

Because they forget a song, the gig has two finales – one, a superb rollick through Tonight We Fly, the band’s traditional end point – and the excellent Our Mutual Friend, a song about a not-so-nice friend, one who is a little too present, as the deceitful third party in a love triangle. Hannon ends up on the floor on his back, determined to fix in his memory this stopgap gig that is both “the start of the tour, and the end of the tour”.

The Guardian

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