Tim Minchin returns to London a much bigger deal than last time he was touring here, eight years ago. And he was a pretty big deal then. Since then he’s knocked out (among other things) Matilda, a Groundhog Day musical, and a Hollywood animated movie that fell at the last hurdle.
What’s he got in store for us? As comeback shows go, it’s rather tentatively trailed as “old songs, new songs, and fuck you songs”. Clearly he didn’t want the burden of having to write an entire show’s-worth of new songs, but at least he’s honest about it. People know what they’re getting. Minchin still pours his heart and soul into Back, though. Not only does he tell us stories from his life like this is a 3,000-seater confessional, he also uses Back to tack his brand away from being a comic. He was, in his words, “misdiagnosed as a comedian”. I think it’s safe to say no one thought he was just a comedian, the talented bastard.
The end product is a show in which Minchin indulges himself as a musician first and foremost, “rational philosopher” second, and comic third. The new songs make little attempt to be funny – Leaving LA, for example, is pretty standard mopey indie fare describing his falling out with Hollywood after the film cancellation. As if to further assert this new chapter, many of the old classics (Cheese, If I Didn’t Have You) get musical makeovers, the latter getting a sort of Buena Vista Social Club treatment, and sounding pretty damn good, too. Rock n Roll Nerd provides the big reveal of a full-on rock band behind the curtain, who accompany him for the rest of the show.
Up to this point it’s been a more intimate Minchin affair, with If This Plane Goes Down and F# performed with just him on piano. In all honesty his songs work better when they’re not given the full rock treatment. He’s a wordsmith, packing so much into his lyrics that they need that space to breathe and be heard. As soon as this rock n roll nerd gets his wish fulfilment of being an actual rock n roll star – once that curtain has come down – his lyrics get lost in the mix and some of the charm is diminished. I’m put in the mind of the third Oasis album, when the rock n roll wannabes finally got what they always wanted: suddenly everything was bigger, louder, more egotistical, but also just not as good.
Even so, Minchin’s talent pulls the show along. A new one that sounds rather like a love song for someone he could have slept with, but didn’t, feels risky given his nice guy image, but it’s too subtle and sweet to resist. And a standing ovation is guaranteed by the finale of When I Grow Up (from Matilda) and the a-cappella ballad Carry You (which is dedicated to his former tour manager who died recently).
Between songs, Minchin delivers a couple of rationalism sermons that are astute, but the self-righteousness grates, no matter how much he checks himself (which is a lot). Minchin has a tendency to lay into the political right, then – perhaps concerned that he’s going to be boxed in as am orthodox leftie – lays into the political left, then himself. Of course both sides are there to be criticised, but for me his over-eagerness to be so achingly even-handed seems quite disingenuous, and only deadens the message. In taking down everyone in turn so methodically, you’re closer to saying nothing than something.
Nonetheless, Minchin’s return to the live stage is a meaty, substantial product, when it could easily have been just a greatest hits romp. He’s gradually shaking off the shackles of comedy, and I don’t mind that, not with his back catalogue to draw upon. As if we didn’t know it already, the sensitive showman sure knows how to give you a good night out.