Impressionist at the piano

MULTI-talented impressionist Alistair McGowan  comes to Poole’s Lighthouse Arts Centre on Thursday 5th May with The Piano Show, showcasing his new-found skills as a concert pianist as well as the comedy impressions for which he is best known.

The show features music spanning the history of the piano, from the 17th century world of Bach via Chopin, Debussy and Satie, to the 21st century and works by Philip Glass and Yann Tiersen. The music is interspersed with quirky anecdotes about the composers and some of Alistair’s newest impressions from Monty Don to Amol Rajan, Noel Fielding to Michael Mosley.

Alistair says: “I keep saying it’s two shows for the price of one. And in a way it is – it’s a piano recital but with comedy bits in between. But it’s not what Bill Bailey or Rainer Hersch do, or even what Victor Borge did. I’m not doing funny music. I do bits of comedy and the music is very much there as a counterbalance to it, and I hope the music will move or relax people.”

Growing up in 1970s Evesham, in Worcestershire, music was a key part of his childhood. His mother was a talented pianist who was the accompanist for the town’s amateur operatic and dramatic society; his father enjoyed listening to classical music records at home; and elder sister Kay, learned the piano to Grade 8.

Alistair also took piano lessons as a child but admits he “didn’t really get on with it”. And aged nine, the sports-mad youngster swapped piano scales for football practice and the tennis courts. Still, piano music continued to act as a soundtrack to his life, and regret at having given up the instrument built as Alistair left home for Leeds University.

“Other kids had taken their cassettes of The Smiths or U2, and I had cassettes of Rachmaninov, Grieg and Schumann. At university I met several people who played the piano, and I thought, why don’t I play? They’d tell me their stories of touring round France having played pianos in various bars and I thought – ‘Oh wow, I wish I’d done that!’ Then I went to drama school in London and there were lads there who played the piano well and all the girls, dare I say it, were looking at the likes of Bob Barrett saying, ‘Wow, what a thing to be able to do! It’s so beautiful and soulful!’ – and I was thinking, ‘why did I stop?!’.”

He graduated (in drama) from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1989, and soon threw himself into the comedy circuit, performing live up to eight times a week, appearing at The Comedy Store and the Edinburgh Festival, and providing many of the uncanny voices for Spitting Image.

In his mid-30s, he embarked on his first piano lessons in more than 25 years, but then The Big Impression took off on BBC One, and became one of the BBC’s most successful comedy programmes. With Alistair writing two thirds of the content and acting as script editor, it left precious little time for anything else and the lessons soon fell by the wayside. He won a BAFTA for the show in 2002 and in 2006, he was also nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance as the demon dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, alongside Sheridan Smith.

The desire to learn to play was reawakened about six years ago by a pianist and teacher “who heard me ‘noodling’, as they call it, on a cruise ship who said to me those four important words – ‘It’s never too late’. I thought it was too late as I was almost 50, but that’s when I had the belief instilled in me by this crazy teacher who said, ‘you’ve got a real aptitude for this, so, let’s get on with it’!”

The most challenging part of taking up the piano in middle age has been tempering his ambition, he says: “I wanted to play everything straight away, and you realise it takes a lot of time. Even now, I have to resist learning too quickly because I just want to get on top of pieces that I’ve always loved and play them and make a nice sound.

After the success of The Piano Album, he started performing in public (with the proviso that there would be mistakes!) with short tours in 2018 and 2019. He was due to take The Piano Show on a national UK-tour in 2020 but dates were put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alistair says: “I hope I’m a standard bearer for the older generation. We hear an awful lot about the ‘New Generation Artists’. I’ve found in doing these shows and in meeting the audience afterwards, so many of them are a similar age to me and tell me that I’ve inspired them to start playing the piano again. It’s rather wonderful!”

The national tour continues; the final date, and the only other one in the West Country is on Friday 10th June at Tetbury’s Goods Shed Arts Centre.