A Couple Of Swells: Liza Pulman & Joe Stilgoe at Cadogan Hall, London

The piano and vocal duo were as polished as a Brylcreem ad in Picture Post as they gave entertaining readings of classic show tunes

492
A Couple Of Swells: Liza Pulman & Richard Stilgoe

The original couple of swells were the pair of vagrants portrayed (circa 1948) by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, in the MGM film Easter Parade. The duo played a song-and-dance partnership working in vaudeville, and A Couple Of Swells (with words and music by Irving Berlin) was just one of their routines.

There can only ever be one Fred Astaire and one Judy Garland, and Joe Stilgoe and Liza Pulman make no attempt to emulate the immortals. Nor do they need to, given that both are highly gifted performers in their own right, who shine both singly and as a double act.

In another life Pulman is one third of the cabaret trio Fascinating Aida and works successfully as a solo artist. I had the pleasure some years ago of catching her appearance in an evening of songs associated with Barbra Streisand. Stilgoe, son of Richard, is a fine pianist and singer-songwriter and whilst I have seen him live on several occasions it has always been in a supporting role. Now they are together: equal billing, equal talent, and the overall winner is the audience.

It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have the odd reservation: fine pianist that he is, Stilgoe was clearly frightened as a child by Bobby Short, and thus the evening is punctuated by Short-like flamboyant barnstorming. Again, when Earl Okin started out, some 40 years ago, he built his act around imitating the sound of a trumpet, and here today Stilgoe imitates a similar instrument. This homage is clearly infectious, for Pulman weighs in with a ballad reading of the usually bouncy Bye Bye Blackbird, and the only other person I have ever heard do this is the aforementioned Bobby Short, who recorded his version on vinyl a good half century ago. When I mentioned this to Ms Pulman, she claimed no knowledge of the Short performance and said she’d been doing it that way since she was 12 years old.

Still, enough of the caveats and more of the kudos due to the remaining 98% of this Fabergé egg masquerading as a show. Both performers are as polished as a Brylcreem ad in Picture Post. There are lovely readings of The Folks Who Live On The Hill, People Will Say We’re In Love and If I Loved You, and we’ve finally broken the 100-year barrier inasmuch as Irving Berlin’s I Love A Piano was written in 1916, with Mountain Greenery (1926) coming up on the outside. They’ve got a nice line in closers, too – a full-on take of the Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis duet on Me And My Shadow, with the new hip lyrics by Sammy Cahn, and just when you think that’s a wrap they’re back with Lenny Bernstein’s wistful Some Other Time, from On The Town.

They’ve been touring this show round the UK, so you may be one up on me, or, if you’re real lucky, it could be coming to a theatre near you. If so, run, don’t walk. You’ll thank me. Honest.

***

Liza Pulman & Joe Stilgoe: A Couple Of Swells. Cadogan Hall, Sloane Terrace, Chelsea, 15 May 2024.