It’s pretty easy for any self-respecting, ‘serious’ music enthusiast to turn their nose up at a theatrical re-telling or tribute show of one of our favourite bands. The music we’ve listened to and loved alone or with close friends can very easily become kitsch or overly sentimental when performed on stage by anyone other than the artists themselves. I was, however, recently impressed after seeing Sunny Afternoon, a musical set to The Kink’s catalogue, and so jumped at the chance to see The Simon & Garfunkel Story when it came to Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre.
Musically much of the show was admirable, Gregory Clarke (Simon) and Joe Sterling (Garfunkel) are both accomplished vocalists who were able to reproduce the original’s hallmark close harmonisations and vocal idiosyncrasies, if perhaps lacking their exact timbres and emotional drive. Leon Camfield on bass, Adam Smith on guitar and drummer James Pritchard also provide commendable support when the set moves beyond the duo’s conventional acoustic arrangements on hits such as ‘The Boxer’, ‘Cecila’ and ‘Ms Robinson’. Therein lies another strength of the show, refusing to simply be a ‘greatest hits’ collection and playing rarer cuts such as the psychedelic ‘Patterns’ from 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Romemary & Thyme.
That said, the show is not comprised of music alone, and this is where it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny so well. Director David Beck has struck an unusual tone halfway between a total tribute act and fully adapted musical. Clarke and Sterling are clearly dressed to resemble Simon and (what my friend called a ‘charity shop’) Garfunkel, yet they act as themselves in a faux casual way, with ‘humorous’ anecdotes that when delivered, unconvincingly come across as cardboard and honestly a little cringey. Sterling in particular brings an unnecessary touch of west-end theatricality to his performance, often bowing and smiling wistfully into the stage lights after songs – with perhaps a few apprehensive glances at the audience members who seem to be leaving early. Moments like this make short work of the otherwise authentic musical elements.
Another aspect of the production that needs a bit of tidying up is its use of nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong, nostalgia can be a powerful tool in any artistic medium to encourage a deeper engagement in an audience, and is often exploited to great effect. However, The Simon and Garfunkel Show is accompanied by a questionable, and sometimes confusing slideshow, which at times showcases lovely archival photography of the band and helps connect various songs with their respective album covers, but also includes a garish animated sequence to ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin Groovy)’. Here, a cartoon Simon & Garfunkel traverse a typically mystique American desert with lazy sixties symbols thrown in, peace sign and trippy sunglasses included. The montage accompanying the beautiful rendition of ‘Scarborough fair’ was also slightly perplexing, a haphazard collections of images from the anti-Vietnam war movement, a KKK member and even a shot from MLK’s assassination, problematically suggesting ‘Scarborough’ as a protest song connected with all these movements, when in reality it was fair more mainstream.
Don’t get me wrong, the band are perhaps the most instantly recognisable musical figures of the 60s/70s and clearly, the shows target audience consists of the appropriate age group, so of course a reflection and evocation of the period is expected (I, myself often nerd out of any 60s/70s cultural nostalgia). It’s just that this production often felt a little lazy and unconsidered in its approach – it’s really hard to imagine this is how the duo would want their music to be played. You leave with the feeling that in the future, the show should let its strongest suit- and Simon & Garfunkel’s most treasured legacy- the music, speak for itself.