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Tuesday September 28, 2004

Mitch Benn and the Distractions ****

Grey Horse, Kingston upon Thames

Is it a gig? Is it a comedy show? So musically adept are Mitch Benn and his band, the Distractions, and so droll their parodies, you get the best of both worlds. Radio 4 stalwart Benn's new show, entitled Too Late to Cancel, attains giddying heights of caricature. For two hours on stage, Benn plunders pop's dressing-up box, and each transformation - from U2 to Guns N' Roses to Lloyd Webber - is funnier to watch than the last.

The set divides between original comic songs and direct send-ups. Benn starts with a few of the former, which give scant indication of how amusing he's going to be. Likewise, his slightly gauche between-song persona. But when the spoof tunes begin (with a spot-on Duran Duran takeoff), the audience are in his thrall. There's something liberating about seeing icons toppled, about seeing their styles so blithely replicated. Benn performs an "interactive" number in which musical artistes are arbitrarily twinned with types of comedy: Elvis and toilet humour, say, or James Brown and slapstick ("Hit me! Ow!"). And the exactitude of the imitations is sublime.

Not pastiches as such, Benn's songs comment on themselves. Ribbing the endless exploitation of the Beatles' back catalogue, he has John Lennon sing: "You know this demo stinks/ Despite what Yoko thinks." But when his show really takes off, it's with tunes that pair style to unlikely subject. There's Hitler singing, a la Nashville, about his frustrated cowboy ambitions ("I'm tired of all these fellas/ Singing Deutschland Uber Alles"). And there's a tour of drug-fuelled musical genres in the company of Benn's auntie, who chants "jammy, jammy, jammy, dodgers" after Underworld's Born Slippy. Best of all - and it's a lyrical tour de force - is Eminem's Macbeth, in which Malcolm "comes back to attack the Mac with a pack of Sassenachs". Benn is neither slim nor shady, but as this showstopper proves, he's the real deal. (Brian Logan)
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