Matthew Strachan and Guests, St James Theatre Studio ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

When a musician is promoted based on his creation of a TV quiz show theme tune as his greatest achievement, it tends not to bode well. But for Matthew Strachan, composer of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s recognisable melody, it is merely his best-known work, and not necessarily the greatest example of his songwriting.

Instead, Strachan’s greatest strength seems to be in well-crafted storytelling within the structure of deceptively simple songs. At the St James Studio, the Hawaiian-shirt clad Strachan rattles through a selection of numbers from his prolific career and over 30 years of songwriting. Jumping around his own personal chronology, Strachan intermingles poignant blues songs of love and death with other numbers that are brighter and more satirical in nature.

Strachan’s tales of working as a songwriter in Nashville, the heart of American country music, provide some witty interludes to his songs, contrasting well with some of the moodier themes. His song choices do attempt to balance some of the darkness: for instance, a tale of Ku Klux Klan members lynching black people, The Shadow of the Maple Tree, is followed by Oh Me, Oh My, Oh Monica!, a humorous ode to Ms Lewinsky and her dalliance with Bill Clinton (‘cigars just drive her wild/subpoenas have been filed’).

And generally, even the darkest numbers have a degree of black comedy to them, their blues tinge making Strachan seem like a cross between Georgie Fame and Victoria Wood. A particular highlight is a song inspired by a newspaper interview with modern artists Gilbert and George, in which Strachan muses whether after closing their door to the world, the couple are still ‘Gilbert and George’, or just Gilbert and George.

There is a romantic streak, too, as most effectively realised in a performance of Journeyman by Abigail Matthews, a performer whose sweet and rich voice deserves greater attention.

Sadly, Matthews appears for a single song only, as does Wendi Peters, who brings the same comedic charm that made her so popular on Coronation Street to bear for a tale, plucked from Strachan’s musical, About Bill, about a landlady who develops an unrequited attachment to her young lodger. A tune that starts off comedically but develops increasing strands of melancholy, it’s the perfect cabaret number for a woman of Peters’ abilities, and a microcosm of Strachan’s work overall.

It is a shame, then, that the “and Guests” element of this show’s title is the least developed element of Strachan’s set. On the evidence of Matthews and Peters, Strachan’s work has the ability to soar in a variety of voices, and it would be good to hear more of that.