BBC Proms reviews

Prom 45: Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain @ Royal Albert Hall, London

18 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Arriving early I found the steps and low walls outside the Albert Hall thronged by small groups of people playing the ukulele as regular Prom goers drifted around looking amused.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had come to the Albert Hall for their debut Proms performance. The concert included a participatory version of Ode To Joy and heart-warmingly over one thousand people had turned up with their ukuleles. For a band that is universally described as fun this took it to a truly celebratory level.

Walking on stage to deafening woops and applause in their trademark black tie orchestral garb George Hinchliffe began as they intended to go on – with a joke. George is ostensibly the band leader but a democratic spirit prevails as each member takes it in turn to introduce a song. Dave Suich introduced the second, asking the audience to sing along to ‘this song born of our love of Simon and Garfunkel and government destabilisation’. A sweet and gentle version of Anarchy in the UK follows with the entire Albert Hall joining in on ‘I wanna be anarchy’ and giggling. A fitting tribute to a band whose supposedly anarchist front man now sells his Sex Pistols ‘brand’ to promote butter.

The best moments were found in their versions of Danse Macabre and their signature tune, Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush. Danse Macabre on the ukulele was surprisingly affecting, there was a moment of hush in the auditorium when they finished as the audience returned from whence they had been transported. Wuthering Heights was kept for their encore and deservedly so as it perfectly encapsulates all the humour, skill and wonder that has maintained their popularity over the past 20 years. Performed in the style of a Northern working men’s club George sang with Rat Pack panache punctuated but audience shouts of ‘Heathcliff!’. Rather than mocking the song it is revealed as a solid gold folk song of the people to be revelled in and sung along to.

I had wondered whether the Albert Hall might swamp the eight voices and eight ukes but in fact the only thing that held them back, if at all was the audience. Whilst large sections of the crowd whooped and clapped at every song there were disappointed mutterings as I left the auditorium of it being ‘fun’ as if having fun at a concert was a strange idea. They play beautifully and are beautifully playful. I would love to see them again.

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Prom 45: Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain @ Royal Albert Hall, London