The Divine Comedy residency at the Barbican review: no pyrotechnics but not lacking in showmanship

 (Mark Allan/Barbican)
(Mark Allan/Barbican)

After almost two years of pandemic delays, Neil Hannon finally kicked off his five-night residency at the Barbican with an evening of witty ditties, suave ironies and self-effacing jokes. Subtitled Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, this career-spanning run of shows is set to feature 10 full albums in chronological order, meaning the Divine Comedy frontman and his expanded 11-piece chamber-pop band have had to learn around 140 tracks.

“I must warn you there’s not going to be a lot of showmanship or pyrotechnics,” quipped the Northern Irish singer, still looking absurdly boyish at 51, despite his self-consciously fogeyish image as a cravat-wearing crooner from a bygone age. He may have enjoyed his biggest hits during the Britpop era, but Hannon was always more Noel Coward than Noel Gallagher.

First up in this epic retrospective was Liberation, released in 1993, technically the second Divine Comedy album but claimed by Hannon as his official debut after disowning his earlier teenage works. Reading his lyrics from a discreet screen, the singer appeared to wince a little on revisiting some of these juvenile efforts.

A few tracks, unplayed for decades, inevitably felt a little clunky. But among many highlights was Festive Road, an homage to the vintage children’s TV show Mister Benn swept along by gorgeously blended vocal harmonies, and the fragile love ballad Timewatching, which was couched in an elegantly sparse string arrangement.

Hannon berated himself for writing so many songs about an obsessive youthful crush (Mark Allan/Barbican)
Hannon berated himself for writing so many songs about an obsessive youthful crush (Mark Allan/Barbican)

Towards the end of this opening act, Hannon jokingly berated himself for writing too many songs about his obsessive crush on the same woman before finishing on a lyrical note with Lucy, a collage of Wordsworth poetry set to fragrant orchestral pop.

Following a short interval, The Divine Comedy returned to perform Promenade from 1994, a loosely conceptual narrative album chronicling a day in the life of two lovers in an unnamed seaside town. Bursting with allusions to classic literature and French New Wave cinema, tracks like The Booklovers and The Summerhouse managed to sound both archly pretentious and achingly romantic.

Meanwhile, the richly eclectic arrangements paid brazen tribute to Hannon’s musical heroes, including contemporary classical composer Michael Nyman and veteran avant-pop crooner Scott Walker, both of whom gave the album their personal blessing.

Perhaps he felt more sure-footed with this material, or maybe it was just the cumulative effect of the generous tumblers of gin that he kept sloshing back all evening, but Hannon seemed to gain confidence and swagger during this second act, which climaxed with an impassioned Tonight We Fly.

For the encore, he treated the Barbican to two of The Divine Comedy’s biggest hits, Generation Sex and National Express, sharing his microphone with the front row for a boisterous communal sing-along. Low on pyrotechnics, maybe, but Hannon’s career-spanning musical marathon was hardly lacking in showmanship.

The Divine Comedy’s Barbican residency continues until Sunday 4 September