The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra is a charming ensemble of ten ukulele players and one double bass player. The band is clothed in brightly-coloured, mismatched, 1980’s fashions, with baritone ukulele player, Sam Auger in a onesie that Sully from Monsters Inc. would be proud of. All of this – and the opener ‘Afternoon Delight’ – means we are smiling and receptive from the offing. Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame is a member and has done much to publicise the group, but he is sadly absent for this tour.
The set consists mainly of pop covers but with some more traditional New Zealand standards thrown in too, lending authenticity to proceedings. Tracks such as ‘This Charming Man’ including some fun Morrissey posturing from Nigel Collins and ‘Road to Nowhere’ elicit smiles and nods of appreciation. It is very hard to sustain excitement for the duration of the songs, though perhaps this is part of the charm for some people. The harmonies, particularly those of the female voices, and the overall sound is lovely. The between-song banter is sweet, silly, gentle stuff you could sit through quite happily with the whole family. There’s also some clever use of basic props and lighting: for the Bonnie Tyler classic, ‘It’s A Heartache’, band leader Age Pryor sings in front of cheap, gold, party tinsel, while a female suspends a small glitter ball above his head, and a spotlight captures his mournful nightclub-style crooning.
Pryor also explains some of the different types of ukulele on stage, including a cheap £15 one, another that’s hundreds of years old, a banjolele, and a Tahitian uke with fishing line for strings and hole on the back. We are also privy to some gentle Hawaiian-style dancing, and later more raucous and comic shaking to Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya!’. This comes perilously close to the kind of twee uke-playing that has become all too familiar in recent years. Thankfully, the talent and ever-so-slight edginess of rocky covers, such as ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’, means the evening never veers into sickly-sweet territory.
‘Very nice’ says a woman as we disperse the debating hall. I couldn’t agree more.