live review // John Otway in Cambridge, The Portland Arms, 13.02.14
words & image // Patrick Widdess


Little has changed about John Otway’s solo show over the years except that he can now claim to be a movie star in addition to a pop star with two hits. For nearly 40 years Otway’s running joke of a career as Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure has won him many fans who have helped the great British underdog storm the top ten, play a packed Albert Hall and produce his own biopic complete with Leicester Square premiere.

Someone shouts “Who are you?” as if on cue as Otway takes to the stage at the Portland prompting him to boast about his pop star / movie star status before introducing his first hit Really Free. There maybe a few newcomers but most are veteran supporters. The setlist is old and so is the accompanying slapstick routine but he still brings down the house.

Some things never stop being funny, like a balding rock singer strutting the stage whilst flapping his arms with a double-necked guitar like a deranged, anorexic turkey. The custom-made instrument is one of many props Otway employs during the show. These also include a theramin, coat hangers, a casio keyboard, plastic doll and a shirt with loosely sewn on buttons that he rips open like a not-so-incredible hulk. My friend pocketed one of the buttons, claiming a Lilliputian piece of rock memorabilia.

He will do anything in order to keep the audience’s attention when he’s not performing one of his two hits. He plays wild theremin solos, straps drum pads to his body and does somersaults off the top of a keyboard stand, a stunt not advisable for a man in his 60s.

His most dynamic prop is long-suffering roadie Deadly. In additional to the usual technical support he is required to fix battered mics, catch flying guitars and be the butt of relentless jokes. The deadpan sidekick is blamed for anything that does, or might go wrong and Otway condescendingly allows him to join in on a couple of songs including a Dylanesque cover of I Will Survive, which he rounds off with a fine harmonica solo.

Between the gags and gaffs Otway sings some songs and, when he doesn’t deliberately botch them, sings them well. Poetry and Jazz, and Josephine are heartfelt and poignant adding depth, and contrast to the madcap tomfoolery.

Also deserving of a mention is support act Rishi, aka Karmadillo who performed songs on topics ranging from zombies to ageing porn stars on a mini guitar called a charango traditionally made from an armadillo shell. His gentile eccentricity and sense of humour made him the perfect warmup for Otway’s comedy rock and roll show.

Otway embodies the pop star in all of us: outrageous, sentimental, capable of catastrophic failure and moments of genius. Otway flaunts it all on stage and when we laugh at him we also laugh at ourselves. Long may he continue!