What would you do if you go the chance to meet your all-time hero? That’s exactly what crossed Martin Kaye’s mind as he was effectively Elton John’s neighbour when the pair found themselves performing in Las Vegas a few years ago – Kaye as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet and John in The Million Dollar Piano. The result of this wondering is a new show written by Chris Burgess and led by Martin Kaye & his band, Elton John: It’s A Little Bit Funny, currently running at Upstairs at the Gatehouse before heading to the Radlett Centre and the Hope Mill Theatre.
Though their careers may not have gone in exactly the same direction, the similarities between Kaye and his hero are indisputable; both are incredibly talented pianists who built foundations in classical music before moving on to rock ‘n’ roll, skilled at playing by ear, and real showmen when they’re paired with a piano. The show sees Kaye delving into one of the Elton John biographies available at the time, and from that starting point we go on a whistle-stop tour of his life – from a lonely, suburban childhood to the outrageous pop star we know and love. It’s peppered with links to Kaye’s own journey and his reactions to the crazy events in his hero’s life story, all weaved together with a selection of songs written by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin.
There is a heck of a lot to choose from in their back catalogue, so accordingly there are plenty of songs in the show (though some are extracts only) – and John has talked at length about how well Taupin managed to get into his head, writing lyrics that summed up what John was feeling at the time and thus many songs have an autobiographical quality to them. This is ideal for a show of this nature, as it allows Elton John to tell his story through his music as well as in imagined dialogue, providing a sense of authenticity. The selection also smacks of a full-on Elton John fan, as there’s far more than the big hits that everybody knows.
Unlike the stages graced by the show’s hero, the setup is quite straightforward (Ben M Rogers); there’s a piano out front and the band stashed away but still visible behind some sleek ‘ELTON’ lettering, and a sofa at the side. Probably the most exuberant things are Martin Kaye’s brightly coloured & unmatching socks! But this simplicity allows the story and the music to gain our full attention. And the video screen in the ‘O’ is an unexpected delight, showing both a variety of projections and footage of Kaye’s hands dancing across the keys – perfect for anyone sat away from the piano to appreciate the skill, energy, and flair being put into the performance (and, as a pianist myself, something I was very keen to scrutinise!).
The passion that Kaye has for his profession and Elton John is clear from the outset; he’s a natural storyteller and powers through the show with real enthusiasm. At no point does he try to mimic his hero in his musical performances, instead singing them his way and making the show authentically his. It’s also a treat to see him recreate his showstopping performance of Great Balls of Fire from Million Dollar Quartet before getting into the heart of the story, and recruiting the audience to sing & clap along as the show comes to a close.
If you loved Rocketman and haven’t quite saved up the funds for a ticket to Elton John’s seemingly never-ending farewell tour, then this is the perfect show for you.
My verdict? A whistle-stop tour of Elton John’s outrageous life, with a soundtrack of some of his greatest hits performed by an excellent live band – don’t you wish you could meet your hero like this?
Elton John: It’s A Little Bit Funny runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 1 March 2020. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website.