Rufus and Martha Wainwright: A Not So Silent Night
Royal Festival Hall, London
6th December 2019
Rufus and Martha Wainwright revealed the extent of their celebrity phone book for “A Not So Silent Night”, a charity gig that was very much a family affair. Tom Hocknell reviews.
In case you’re left in any doubt as to the season, the Royal Festival Hall’s stage is looking like a Christmas window display lost on its way to Liberty’s. The horn section are nearly enveloped by one of the Christmas trees, while the South Bank health and safety commission must have been sedated in the meeting discussing the quantity of candles liberally scattered across the stage. There are also large sofas, the purpose of which become abundantly clear when the ‘guests’ as promised on the programme appear, having clearly required a fleet of Ubers to reach the Royal Festival Hall.
Although it feels like the Rufus show, he needs to watch his back, as his sprightly and frankly mesmerising sister Martha, stalks the stage like a caged-libido. She’s on permanent hand for smiles, pats, hugs, and of course, sublime vocal duties, lead, or backing, and even helps with guitar leads at one point.
The show is a continuation of a Wainwright/McGarrigle family Christmas tradition of the sisters Kate, Anna, and Jane McGarrigle singing Christmas carols and songs with their father Frank and mother Gaby in Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts. The shows have morphed into an annual charity show in aid of the Sarcoma research after Kate died of the cancer ten years ago.
To anyone other than immediate family many of the members on stage will be unknown; although, most of the people on stage are family members. And Chrissie Hyde. However, throughout the evening celebrities reveal themselves: there’s Sophie Ellis-Bextor frankly destroying the effortless melody of Bethlehem, although she later compensates for this with a version of Kate McGarrigle’s First Born. “We’ll only be centre stage for four minutes” Rufus claims, as a firstborn himself, before Martha wryly adds: “more like forty years.” As the mother of five Ellis-Bextor grins and bears it, her heart firmly holding her other four boys, while declaring the special place of a firstborn.
Before this there’s a dreamy Rebel Jesus By Martha, and Ed Harcourt accompanies Rufus on a rather woozy, if not boozy, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? At times there is a risk of the stage having more fun than the auditorium. There’s Harcourt on piano here, and the rich tones of Elbow’s Guy Garvey with Rufus for In the Mid Bleak Winter there. There’s a smoking Martha on I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and we’re encouraged to applaud her legs, which frankly she deserves. Then there’s Dan Gillespie Sells, lead singer of the Feeling and composer of West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, striking the ivories for a beautifully poised Feels like Christmas, which sounds like Bruce Hornsby, but actually turns out to be a lesser-known Feeling song. Richard Jones, their bass player (and Ellis-Bextor’s husband), is also lurking in the band. We also drop in for some Elvis Blue Christmas rockabilly, and of course plenty of folk.
Neil Tennant is introduced and appears not from the sofas, but stage right, for a fragile I Cried For Us, another song by Rufus’ mother Kate McGarrigle. Tennant is of course gamely assisted by Martha. He returns in the second half, before the true arrival of the Rufus show: the bells ring out to announce the catchy, effortless Pet Shop Boys festive effort It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas and Tennant jokes that there’s been no drum machines “until now”. It’s then that Rufus takes on Minuit Chretien, from which Holy Night was adapted in the 1800s. It’s intimately operatic without a mic, and without losing its ground, and certainly not the audience. It’s mesmerising and even provokes his husband to declare it as amazing. Rufus clearly emptied the dishwasher this morning.
Chrissie Hyde may have been slightly underused on Have Yourself Have A Merry Little Christmas, which left questions as to the absence of the Pretenders classic 2000 Miles. Well, she steps up and it arrives. Wearing a Ringmaster’s coat and impressive boots she owns, well, her own song: Diamonds in the snow sparkle/Our hearts were singing/It felt like Christmas time. It matches Martha and the cousin’s immaculate Silver And Gold, which echoes a haunted Kate Bush, as another highlight.
With Rufus and Martha leading the stage in a rendition of A Fairy Tale Of New York it’s a successful East Coast musical family bringing some chutzpah to London. And ultimately the show is everything you want at Christmas: Guy Garvey waving his scarf around a slightly self-conscious, rewarding, occasionally self-indulgent evening. But, it is Christmas and it is for charity, so it’s effectively critic-proof. Here’s to next year.