I have thought long and hard about whether or not I should, or even could, write this. The thing is when one tries to say anything about Tim Minchin, brain goes into Tim-proof mode. As if my writing had to stand up to his personal scrutiny. Which is laughable, really. And paralysing. So, screw it, I’m writing a few thoughts on a beautiful show for all those Minchin appreciators out there who might want to know what the long-awaited Back is like without having to read which songs Tim sings or which jokes are the funniest.
But dammit, how do you even begin to review a Minchin show? A ‘Minchin show’ because Tim Minchin is his own genre, un-pigeonholable (as he might even have said himself, but better, at some point), escaping all labels, tirelessly challenging himself to different roles and creative forms (as Upright – the TV drama he’s plugging – confirms; and by the way no, I can’t wait for it to air either).
I am not a reviewer. Or a writer. But I read plenty of theatre reviews. Some are fairly irritating -either linguistically overcomplicated (which further widens the gap between artistic offer and access to it) or plainly under-researched (which is lazy and disrespectful to say the least). On Back, the thing that gets me is when a review weighs different dimensions of the show separately. Like many other things in the world, Back is not just the sum total of its parts. It’s a carefully crafted ‘offer’ – as Tim has often called creative work – that should be approached and absorbed as a whole (because I say so). The show is engineered to engage the audience in ways that are surprising and thought-provoking via a finely tuned combination of musical excellence, lyrical masterminding, acting, humour and poetry. Quintessentially Minchin.
Those in the audience who are familiar with Tim’s work may not have been the ones roaring with laughter at the perfectly engraved puns in his songs, but that’s only because they know them by heart. Instead, they quietly enjoyed (maybe squeaked in delight) and marvelled (once again) at Tim’s unfailing mastering of assonances, alliterations and improbable rhymes, largely delivered at mindblowing speed; at the impossibly clever combinations of ideas and sounds; at the magnetic stage presence and teamwork. They’ll be the ones retrospectively returning to the structure of the show over and again for a few days at least (it’s been a week and I’m still here). Smiling into their scarves on the journey home thinking about how Tim marshalled them through introspection, social commentary, glorious elation, personal suffering and existential irony with flawless fluidity and a remarkably gentle touch.
To make the whole thing even more glorious, Tim’s band delivers a technically excellent performance, with the bonus of a palpable team spirit which adds emotional breadth to the entire show. I came away with renewed certainty that it is possible, although infrequent, for artists to remain fresh whilst staying true to key ideas. To evolve, in thinking and approach, without betraying the spirit of their craft. I felt grateful, once again, that this world I happen to live in contains people who can create stuff that is meaningful, challenging, hilarious, and beautiful at the same time. That some people have very important things to say and incredibly creative and constructive ways to say them. That it is possible, in 2019, to talk passionately about social responsibility and radical empathy. A message, this, that Tim delivers with unassailable logic and, unless I’ve been tricked by his skilful acting on this one, a whole lot of heart.