A Couple of Swells (Duchess Theatre)

Posted: May 16, 2023 in Theatre


Performers: Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe


Liza Pulman and Joe Stilgoe began their professional partnership during lockdown, she in her kitchen and he in his garden shed. From the worst of times comes the best of times.

After the spectacle of Eurovision, there could be no greater contrast than this. No flashing lights, no dancers, no deafening noise; just two performers singing songs, every one of which is worth douze points. Most noticeable of all is the emphasis put on the songs’ lyrics, all delivered with absolute clarity, so that the work of master lyricists such as Johnny Mercer (‘not the Tory politician”) are dusted down, polished up and presented as if brand new. The melodies are not bad either.

Pulman possesses a pitch perfect musical theatre voice and Stilgoe’s nimble fingers make a single grand piano do the work of a full orchestra. Both come from show business families. She has the philosophy:  “life is too short not to sing the songs that you love” and she sharpened her comedy skills with Fascinating Aida. He could have developed his natural flair for writing and performing routines that combine music with comedy by picking up a thing or two from his famous father.

The primary source of material for this two-hour show (including interval) is the Great American Song Book, updated to include the likes of Billy Joel and Randy Newman alongside Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael and so on. Some of Stilgoe’s original songs are thrown in too, but, oddly, the duet that gives the show its title is omitted. There are cultural references which may go over the heads of anyone in the audience under 70, but, whether it comes from nostalgia or from discovery, the joy is plentiful.

Pulman’s soulful rendition of songs such as the blissfully melancholic The Folks Who Live on the Hill contrasts with Stilgoe’s comic mash-up of pieces ranging from Nellie the Elephant to Duran Duran’s Rio. However, two duets stand out; the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs People Will Say We’re in Love and If I Loved You, from different shows but saying essentially the same thing, merge together wonderfully. After that, the 1925 Henderson/Dixon classic Bye Bye Blackbird is united with the 1968 Beatles’ song Blackbird to memorable effect.

The cue is given to pack up all your cares and woe and head for wherever this couple of swells are on stage next. Summing up appropriately with a line from a Cole Porter song: “What a swell party this is!”.

Performance date: 15 May 2023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.