Nellie McKay + the Old Hats

If an invitation to a clown show came my way, I’d have flatly refused. The combination of theatre, 42nd street, and clowns arouses my “crap entertainment” radar, and I can think of a hundred other ways I’d rather spend my evenings. Thankfully, I wasn’t given any information other than to please keep Thursday April 18th free for a surprise. It turned out to be Old Hats, two long-time stage clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner and their cheeky musical accomplice, Nellie McKay. And so with exceedingly low expectations, I took my seat in the sold-out Signature Theatre, and watched the two grey-haired clowns pair old-fashioned vaudeville with modern-day comedy. Thank god I hadn’t manage to wangle out of this invitation. 

To inspire audience-wide, non-stop, uncontrollable laughter without saying a word requires an extraordinary amount of talent, which Irwin and Shiner displayed in copious amounts. They dressed in the floppy shoes and over-sized pants of yesteryear whilst using facial expressions and body-language to poke fun at the absurdity of today’s gadget-obsessed business man and politicians’ flag-waving and desperate attempts to score votes. My stomach ached hardest during the skit featuring Shiner as a sleazy, incompetent magician and Irwin as his assistant-wife, desperately trying to shoo away his fondness for young ladies. It was friggin’ hilarious.

But I am most thankful for the introduction to Nellie McKay, whose witty ditties and sweet voice left me wondering just how I’ve managed to miss her all these years (shame her Doris Day-like imagery succeeds so well at masking her bad-ass wit). She alternated between the ukelele and piano, between whispers and shouts, singing super-savvy, wise-cracking songs about feminism (“Mother of Pearl”) and manners (“Won’t U Please B Nice?”) and first-world frustration (“Inner Peace”). McKay wears many hats (sorry) as artist, musician, comedian, actress, feminist, and political activist, and recalls the all-round entertainers of the past rather than today’s one-trick-ponies. She looked positively petite alongside her backing band of hefty musos and a bass player who seemed to think he was in a metal band. 

So I’m a lil’ late to the McKay party, and shall be spending tomorrow’s Record Store Day in search of her entire back catalogue. 

For tickets to Old Hats

Nellie’s performance at the Ted Conference:

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