It’s hard to think of a band better suited to perform at the City Varieties than The Divine Comedy.
The fabric of the music hall seems sewn into Neil Hannon’s compositions and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine the cast of the Good Old Days performing ‘Funny Peculiar’, a duet with support act Lisa O’Neill, or the vaudevillian David Bowie-isms of ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’.
The theatrics don’t stop with the music: Hannon primly perches himself on the stage’s steps to sing “on our friend’s settee” (“I’m acting!”); swaps into period costume to sing the self-deprecating ‘Napoleon Complex’; and produces bottles of wine and champagne flutes from a globe that he proceeds to pass around his five band mates.
The drama school elements are also present in his banter, drolly extemporising when he forgets the words to ‘Something For The Weekend’ and breaking off ‘At The Indie Disco’ to bemoan the dimensions of a tiny disco ball that’s descended from the ceiling.
Crucially, it also stirs the am-dram in the audience, which whoops receptively when Hannon urges them to “make wild ecstatic sounds” and sends out a cry of outrage when the guillotine falls on ‘The Frog Princess’.
This interaction helps to break down barriers that, on record, can make the band’s observational lyrics appear arch rather than sincere. ‘National Express’ finally becomes the celebratory indie-disco anthem it was always intended to be and new single ‘How Can You Leave Me On My Own’ is comic gold as he “turns into a beer swilling, time killing loser”.
Yet for all this punning there’s also a touch of the perfectionist. “Your piano is out of tune,” he nonchalantly advises his colleague at the start of ‘I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget)’. The instrument is at the centre of much of the band’s stately chamber pop, which is informed as much by the character writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald as it is classic Bacharach and David song-writing.
Eleven albums into their career and these elements have formed an instantly recognisable sound. The real surprise tonight is therefore how warm and engaging the tracks are when Hannon strips them of their overly knowing quality.