John Hegley began his career as a performance poet at the comedy store thirty years ago and he has been spreading the word about dogs, the glory of wearing glasses, love, loss, Luton bungalows and potatoes ever since. He also plays mandolin, works in schools and performs all over the country with a strange kind of laid back enthusiasm, and just for good measure he is also a charming cartoonist. All of these skills come together wonderfully when you see him on stage. There is nobody else quite like him. Not surprisingly, he now knows exactly what he is doing and his understated but absolute command of an audience is enormous fun to watch. His performance seems random, and sometimes it is, but nothing is left to chance and there is a fierce intelligence running through everything that he does. You have to keep your wits about you and listen hard or you may miss the killer punch to something that seems slight, as hidden in the fun there is a certain amount of melancholy and some serious points. For instance, his throwaway comment that his performance was dedicated to “those with teaching difficulties” made you laugh at the incongruity but also remember exactly why he was saying it ( see here for more details) and wince a little.
This show The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet is partly based on the show that he took up to the Edinburgh festival last year, but it is also a way of trying out new material for the festival this year and giving us a few old favourites like Amoeba and I Need You. There was a sequence based on a picture of an Owl drawn by his fifteen year old daughter which illustrates very well how he works. It was a lovely picture but when he didn’t say so quickly enough she crossed it out in frustration. Later he made the crossings out into a lattice window and wrote a moving and thoughtful song about the incident, reminding us to share our feelings with those that we love before it is too late. We were shown the drawing (on a trusty and defiantly old fashioned overhead projector) as he explained all this before gathering information from a member of the audience who recognised the quite obscure species, and finally playing the song. The bedrock of the show was the story of the relationship between his French grandmother, a dancer at the Folies Bergere, and his grandfather. He showed us the scene where they met again, after many years of separation, using an empty chair to symbolise his grandfather, and it was both very funny and moving. There was plenty of audience participation- there always is at a Hegley gig- and people were asked to sing, read out some simple French, wave and tap their glasses, mime letters of the alphabet, and more besides. Finally those fortunate enough to be wearing spectacles were invited to dance to Walk Away Renee while swapping glasses with each other. All of them loved it.
There is something wonderfully English John Hegley’s work, even if his ancestry is part French, it’s something about understatement, the way that he celebrates the ordinary minutiae of everyday life and draws conclusions from small things that may sometimes have large truths to show us. When you add to that a large dose of stage presence and killer comic timing you really do have something to treasure. It isn’t the first time that I’ve seen him live and it won’t be the last.