Rufus and Martha Wainwright review – quirky, magnificent festive blowout

Royal Festival Hall, London
Chrissie Hynde, Neil Tennant and Sophie Ellis-Bextor joyously topped up the Wainwright siblings’ big-hearted Christmas fundraiser, A Not So Silent Night

Christmas with the extended family can be an ordeal. After too many days in close proximity to rarely encountered aunts or cousins, the Yuletide season’s compulsory mood of forced jollity can switch to listless ennui or murderous rage.

Despite this, the Wainwright family’s festive musical shindig, usually held in Canada or New York, is quite a tradition. Rufus and Martha last threw a Christmas party in London 10 years ago, six weeks before the death from cancer of their folk-icon mother, Kate McGarrigle. To mark the anniversary, this show is a benefit to raise funds to provide music-therapy resources for cancer patients.

The Wainwrights make for well-heeled but idiosyncratic Xmas hosts, despite their own history of family dysfunction. Between twinkling Christmas trees, the many family members and their party guests take turns to perform then loll on plush red sofas on a set resembling a lavishly appointed country-house sitting room.

Martha and her sister Lucy Wainwright Roche kick off the festivities, turning Jackson Browne’s The Rebel Jesus into a soft Irish air. It’s charming – as is Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s reshaping of O Little Town of Bethlehem into immaculately enunciated lounge jazz, backed by numerous Wainwright siblings and cousins.

Martha Wainwright and Rufus perform live on stage during Rufus & Martha Wainwright’s ‘A Not So Silent Night’ at The Royal Festival Hall on December 06, 2019 in London, England Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian
Come into the grotto … Martha and Rufus play hosts. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

Splendid in a specially grown Santa beard, Rufus duets What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? with Ed Harcourt, complete with a sub-Strictly waltz, like a high-camp modern take on the Rat Pack. Neil Tennant and Martha imbue McGarrigle’s I Cried for Us, long covered by Pet Shop Boys, with fervent yearning, despite Tennant’s career-long habit of singing through his nose.

Guy Garvey joins Rufus for a sumptuous croon through In the Bleak Midwinter before Martha trills Trois Anges, in French, like a Yuletide Piaf merry on sweet sherry. Duetting with Rufus on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Chrissie Hynde’s voice is, as ever, a sultry throb.

It’s all a very warm, big-hearted celebration. Rufus’s husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, unleashes a surprisingly powerful, Lee Marvin-like basso profundo on White Christmas and Heilige Nacht. Not to be outdone, opera soprano Janis Kelly crafts an epic gothic take on Burl Ives’s Silver and Gold.

With Rufus’s barbed wit largely sheathed tonight, it’s Martha who is the life and soul of the party, giddily exuberant on the Waitresses’ 1981 fun-punk romp Christmas Wrapping, and turning trad folk song Mary Had a Baby into racked blues. Her brother’s microphone-free, a cappella rendition of Minuit, Chretiéns/O Holy Night is captivating.

Martha Wainwright and Neil Tennant .
Party on … Martha Wainwright and Neil Tennant. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

After Chrissie Hynde drawls 2000 Miles, sounding like Christmas incarnate, the entire company gather for a nicely shambolic roister through John and Yoko’s Happy Xmas (War is Over). The encore brings a delicate rendering by the three Wainwright siblings of Proserpina, the last song written by McGarrigle before her death.

The evening ends as all Christmas shows should. “This is a song about alcoholics from Galway,” notes the reliably waspish Rufus, before he and Martha lead an ensemble romp through the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. It’s been a magnificent Christmas bash: a night of joyous depths and shallows.

• This article was amended on 8 December 2019 to correct a misspelling of the song Proserpina and to remove the claim that Kate McGarrigle was Lucy Wainwright Roche’s mother.


Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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