A Swingin' Christmas

Reviewed at the Crazy Coqs by Clive Davis for The Times

Four stars ****

Raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household where Christmas was frowned upon, Gary Williams is something of a latecomer to the concept of festive cheer. The Sinatra-esque crooner is certainly making up for lost time in this ebullient show. Be warned: if you are allergic to Yuletide singalongs, get ready to wander out of your comfort zone in the second half of the evening.

Then again he conducts the proceedings with such gentle, unassuming humour that even the most atheistic of souls — I had one sitting next to me, as a matter of fact — will be willing to join in. It was surely a little too early to be singing Auld Lang Syne, but Williams and his adroit pianist Matt Regan also smuggle in some distinguished material with only the loosest of connections to Santa and his cronies. Their treatment of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now — inspired by the poignant Christmas scene in the film Love Actually — was as intense as any I have heard in a long time.

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Williams’s attention to detail is all that you would expect from the author of Cabaret Secrets, a fascinating insider’s handbook on how to nurture an audience for the kind of classic songbook fare that struggles to make itself heard in a world obsessed with The X Factor. A storyteller with a self-mocking turn of phrase, he seldom indulges in cheesy patter.

He can try his hand at Cole Porter-ish wordplay too. His original song about the ever-changing face of slang, from “camp” to “bong”, is extraordinarily deft. How ironic then that, as he explains, an angry punter, on hearing the words, once accused him of being a homophobe and even began throwing things at him. Being gay as well as a no-nonsense northerner, Williams could almost see the funny side.