Like many of the great eccentrics of classical music – Dudamel, Rattle or Rieu – Thomas Monckton has plumes of unruly hair whose strands quiver and wave as he leaps around the stage. He wears white tie – tails that he can flick over the edge of his piano stool – but, really, that’s where the similarities between him and ‘real’ classical musicians end. Monckton isn’t a virtuoso musician; he’s a clown.
As he prepares to begin his recital, each step in the supposedly simple routine of sitting down at a piano becomes a ridiculous mishap, a slapstick melodrama. He drops his sheet music (and then proceeds to masterfully juggle with the sheets of paper), he hits his head on a low hanging chandelier, he can’t adjust his stool. Each time, though, Monckton learns from his mistake and laboriously repeats the whole routine. Part of the fun is in trying to guess what will go wrong next.
Many of the visual jokes are very simple, and still produce peals of laughter; it’s easy to see many of the mishaps coming, but the joy is in watching how Monckton executes them, like having to find a substitute (his own body) when he accidentally yanks the leg off his grand piano.
Chopin accompanies much of the show, but occasionally the lights change and Chopin gets remixed and Monckton enters a drawn out reverie or imaginative flight of fancy. He creates puppets from his fingers or hides under the piano dust sheet and turns his the shapes of his protruding limbs into spirited little characters that kiss and fight.
Amid the silliness – like turning his music stand into saloon doors – Monckton shows a complete control over the stage space, over the audience and, most importantly, over himself. He catapults himself into a handstand on top of the piano, he hangs horizontally from a spinning chandelier by one arm.
Having the central premise – the start of the piano concert – ties the show together so that there is always a focus for Monckton to return to, a narrative centre around which the little comic melodramas can cluster.
In the end, Monckton does sit down and play but in strange circumstances: the piano is on fire and has sprouted a rainforest, and everything Monckton plays is transformed into a synth wash that recalls the ethereal sounds of Vangelis’ soundtrack to Blade Runner. It’s a calm, satisfying and bathetic ending. Consistently very funny, Monckton adds his own unique contribution to a distinguished pedigree of piano-based comedy.
Southbank Centre until 18 January.