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Susan’s Bookshelves: Well Strung by Kevin Farrell and Steven Worbey, with Simon Aves

Kevin Farrell and Steven Worbey are talented, classically trained pianists, who believe that recitals and performances don’t have to be po-faced or solemn. So it’s classical music spliced with comedy. On one occasion they played Rachmaninof’s famous D minor piano concerto in D major “to cheer it up a bit”. Their Peter and the Wolf – with verses they’ve written themselves – is hilariously quirky and their Warsaw Concerto quite something. It’s a two man act in a threesome: Farrell, Worbey and the piano. Yes, one piano. Everything is arranged for and performed on a single grand piano. They share a duet stool – often leaping on and off it, running round it and leaning over each other irreverently.

I first saw them some years ago at Brighton Dome with Brighton Philharmonic under Barry Wordswrith’s baton. Then I met them and interviewed them for a magazine feature and have seen several other performances in different venues since. And now, with Simon Aves, they’re written a book about their careers.  Worbey & Farrell (they joke that their brand name sounds like a firm of solicitors and were once introduced as Farrow and Ball) are good company on stage, in person or in print.

Both men attended Royal College of Music, one year apart. Although they knew each other and have many friends in common, it was some years later that their act began to emerge because they were accidentally locked in a friend’s flat all day, got drunk and started messing about on the piano with lots of silliness and laughter. Then they realised that perhaps there was potential here.

Their entertaining book – anecdotes, memories, conversations, reflections – has been moulded into coherence by Simon Aves whose name is in a larger font on the cover than theirs. I was glad to see this because ghost writers usually do a sterling job and rarely get the appropriate level of credit.  Aves has structured it in a series of chapters with delightful eighteenth/nineteenth century-style chapter headings. For instance: “In which we tell you about the exotic places we have visited. Steven attracts some unwelcome attention in Costa Rica and we both risk our lives in the Faroe Islands.” Then each chapter comprises short sections purporting to be written by either Steven or Kevin with bits of witty interjectory dialogue. It doesn’t, however, gain anything from the rather tiresome (and inconsistent) use of different fonts to indicate who’s speaking.

These men have travelled the world entertaining crowds on cruise ships. They’ve played theatres and concert halls all over the globe. They work very hard – and play hard. Wherever they go they also enjoy also booze, gay bars and time with friends. They are a gregarious pair, whose work succeeds because beneath all that (carefully choreographed and rehearsed) joking, joshing and apparent insouciance is a passionate respect for the music and quality of performance.

There’s another rather darker non-musical story in this engaging book. Kevin and Steven set up a gay dating website with a man they regarded as a friend. When it began to take off, said friend cut them out which eventually led to years of litigation and dreadful feelings of loss and hurt. Yes, they should have made money out of this project but the worst thing about it was being treated in this way by someone they had known well and liked.

But it’s the conversations with audience members (“I have a dog named Pansy – no offence”) and the experiences which make this book zing. At one stage, for example, against the advice and instincts of many people close to them, Kevin and Steven agreed to go on Britain’s Got Talent. As many of their friends predicted the show is a sham and should be beneath the attention of performers of their talent. But I loved Kevin’s description of it as a “Vaudevillian concentration camp” Fortunately, their stage- managed “failure” was never broadcast.

Read this book. And go to one of their concerts. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Windmill Hill by Lucy Atkins

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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