James Walton

An original and brilliant show: Loudon Wainwright III at Leicester Square Theatre reviewed

An original and brilliant show: Loudon Wainwright III at Leicester Square Theatre reviewed
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Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin

Leicester Square Theatre

Even by the standards of his fellow confessional singer-songwriters who emerged alongside him in the 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III has spared us very little over the years about his marriages, divorces, affairs and — not surprisingly in the circumstances — his often troubled relationships with his children. (Two of those children, Rufus and Martha, have also exercised their right to reply, perhaps most memorably in Martha’s song ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’.) In this original and brilliant new show, he’s still at it — although this time the primary focus is on his relationship with his own father, who wrote for Life magazine from the early Sixties until his death in 1988.

Wainwright describes Surviving Twin as a ‘posthumous collaboration’. What this means in practice is that he performs (rather than merely reads) some of Loudon II’s more personal columns,  mostly about family life, and then responds with songs that confirm, develop or sometimes contradict what we’ve just heard.

Ian Hislop once claimed that the theme of virtually all American popular culture is ‘I love you, dad.’ But Loudon III’s perspective is of course a lot more complicated, interesting and ultimately convincing than that. He clearly enjoys the fact that his old dad’s journalism stands up so well, and can still get both laughs and little gasps of recognition several decades later. At the same time, however, he leaves us in no doubt that their old rivalry lives on, even though one of the adversaries is 70, and the other has been dead for nearly 30 years.

And, of course, he also knows — and therefore tells us all about — how such father-son rivalry cascades through the generations. The show’s title comes from the 2001 song that he performs beautifully here, and that ends ‘Although my father’s dead and gone/ I’m his surviving twin’. And to prove that he is, Loudon III does more than just accompany his dad’s piece about buying a suit in Savile Row by dressing himself in that very same suit; or even than just note that both of them left their wives and children. His songs about being a dad display an eerily similar mixture of defiance, guilt, defensiveness, resentment, self-loathing, self-pity, self-acceptance and unmistakable (if slightly sheepish) love to that found in Loudon II’s columns.

But if this makes Surviving Twin sound like a solemn piece of naval-gazing, that would be wildly misleading on both counts. For one thing, while the home movies and photos give us a very specific sense of the Wainwright family, it duly turns out that much of what Loudon III is gazing at applies to the rest of us too — often piercingly. For another, as throughout his career, he’s able to deal with all this stuff without being remotely solemn: well aware of how funny it is too.

The result is a show that, on the night I went, had the audience audibly unsure whether to laugh or cry — although in the end, most of us settled for both.