Comedy Festival: First he takes Harrogate. . .

Arthur Smith.

Arthur Smith.

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By Graham Chalmers

It’s the perfect lugubrious combination - and it’s merely one of the many highlights of this year’s Harrogate Comedy Festival.

Despite an amazing line-up including cult TV Show Knightmare! live, Marcus Brigstocke, Dave Gorman, Ruby Wax, Ross Noble, Omid Djalili, Mark Watson, Chris Ramsey and Channel 4 stars Cardinal Burns, I must admit I’m most intrigued by the bringing together of two such disparate forces as Arthur Smith and Leonard Cohen.

Already a hit wherever it’s played, the wonderfully entitled Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen Volume 2 arrives at Harrogate Theatre on Monday, October 6.

Yes, that’s right, Arthur does actually sing Leonard Cohen!

Smith himself is typically blunt about the reasoning behind the show.

He said: “I decided to do the first Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen partly because it seemed to promise the least funny show imaginable!”

Premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, his latest Cohen show has enjoyed a sold-out run at the Soho Theatre in London, then another sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe before ending up on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year.

Smith, a comic institution in radio, TV and stage for the last 30 years, is probably best known for appearing regularly on Grumpy Old Men - which is handy, as they don’t get grumpier than Leonard Cohen!

But Smith begs to differ on the subject of the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter famed for songs such as Hallelujah, First We Take Manhattan and I’m Your Man.

He said: “Leonard is actually hilarious in a kind of downbeat way. I am fairly sure he would like the show. He hasn’t seen it but he knows about it and has allowed us to use his songs.”

Surprisingly, Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen Volume 2 illustrates a deep personal connection between these two performers, one founded on a memorable moment in the 59-year-old Londoner’s own life with a certain French lady a long time ago.

“The first time I saw Leonard Cohen live was in Paris 1976 at the end of my year as an English assistant. I decided to treat myself and my French girlfriend to tickets for a Leonard Cohen concert. We were both bewitched by the sombre beauty of his music and the elusiveness of his meanings.

“Afterwards Monique, at last, invited me to spend the night with her. This was where my debt to Leonard began!”

Next Monday’s show at Harrogate Theatre sees Smith utilising Leonard Cohen’s songs to muse on dementia, death and decline to hilarious and poetic effect.

As musically strong as it is comically adept, Smith performs with expert instrumental backing.

“My accompanist, Kirsty Newton, is a brilliant pianist who understands comics so well she married one. So did my two new backing singers Ali Day and Carrie Marx.

“The use of a keyboard rather than a guitar has liberated me to sing songs like Take This Waltz and Everybody Knows, while the female voices have, as they do for Leonard, given the show a greater musical depth - not to mention a whole heap more glamour!

The sixth annual Harrogate Comedy Festival runs from Sunday, October 5 to Saturday, October 18 at venues including Harrogate Theatre, the Royal Hall and the Crown Hotel in Harrogate.

Tickets are available on 01423 502116 or book online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk