“This is actually happening,” said a baffled Bill Bailey as he strolled onto the hallowed stage of the Royal Opera House. But then the West Country comedian should be used to surprises by now. Maybe he thought the same thing when he was taken to the nation’s hearts last December and won Strictly Come Dancing.
Despite initial shock, the 56-year took appearing at the prestigious venue in his stride. He has always combined music and comedy so it made sense that this week he becomes the comedian to play the most nights ever at the Covent Garden venue. He also, simultaneously, becomes the first-ever performer to play heavy metal classics on cowbells on this stage.
Bailey’s meandering-yet-mesmerising two hour set mixed new material with various greatest hits. One minute he was wondering why you never hear bagpipes on yoga retreats, the next he was discussing the use of birdsong in dance music. He recited poetry, played the blues and read from an Indonesian phrase book. Like a stand-up Midas everything he touched turned to comedy gold.
And of course he danced. A rotating glitterball high above his head was a nod to his Strictly victory. While he said he initially expected to be there for comic value, he was proud to have triumphed alongside partner Oti Mabuse. Some nifty John Travolta moves here during a burst of Saturday Night Fever proved that the win was no fluke.
Where some material, on politics or the pandemic for example, did not add significantly to what has already been said, Bailey carried the gags over the finishing line on sheer charm. It was a mark of his popularity that he almost got an ovation just by waving a kazoo.
Other off-the-wall ideas – his notion of a Victorian Love Island, all cholera and corsets, or his impersonation of Tom Waits singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm – demonstrated the way he can take a silly concept and run with it.
By the time his electric guitar sparked up after some technical issues, sections of his fan club could barely contain their excitement. His status as National Treasure alongside David Attenborough cannot be far off. In fact at times onstage when he was recalling his own interests in wildlife, from otters to orangutans, he felt like a natural heir to the veteran broadcaster.
In one wonderful observational routine he riffed on the idea that this country loves failure, suggesting that we are the only nation that cheers when a waiter drops a tray. Yet Bailey himself has turned out to be one of comedy’s sublime successes and we love him for it. Would we prefer him to be a flop? Certainly not.
Royal Opera House, WC2, to August 8. Touring from December 12. billbailey.co.uk