Dinner and a show: a winning combination. Pizza and proper swing music: heaven. Pizza Express’ ‘The Pheasantry’ plays host to Alex Mendham & His Orchestra, a ‘time machine band’ dedicated to historical authenticity in their performances. Looking around the audience, I felt I’d found a home with the vintage-store princesses and oily-haired jazz-men – the kind of folk who appreciate the figure of a feller in a waistcoat. As dashing and glamorous as everybody looked, the evening was let down by the constricted venue and basement acoustics.
Mendham’s orchestra sets itself apart with an earnest commitment to the time period – ‘from their vintage instruments to the pomade in their hair, no detail is overlooked.’ They’re also rightfully proud of their repertoire of music that hasn’t survived the century, mostly reviving forgotten gems rather than pandering to the ‘Swing When You’re Winning’ generation. This is no style-over-substance outfit – even the details of the orchestrations were a delight to hear, with banjo, violin, woodblocks and sousaphone adding a by-gone feel to the swing-band sound.
The playing was broadly excellent, with some entertaining solos particularly from the trombonist (although I’m biased…), but ultimately the large band felt cramped and constrained in a space which didn’t work with the head-count. This compromised their timbre because they just couldn’t let rip, and probably contributed to the moments when the ensemble wasn’t as tight as it should have been.
At the centre of the performance was Alex Mendham himself who compèred, sang, played sax, imitated a train, and treated us the visual spectacle of front-facing conducting. This was purely for the audience’s benefit – conducting with a wink and a smile – and is a phenomenon I’d only ever seen in old film clips. Mendham’s singing was also enchanting, with his swoopy period drawl that could’ve come straight out of your granny’s gramophone.
I would have loved the whole show to have been ‘in character’, since what gestures there were at between-song banter were at odds with the feel of the show. Given the opportunity, I would definitely see the Orchestra again in a larger venue to see what they can really do. Plus I need to justify my inter-war wardrobe.