Being the cultural trashfire of a human being that I am it means I am oblivious to major events that I’d love to attend until way after they’ve occurred. Having grown up on a heavy diet of Bill Murray films in my youth to the slightly leaner output of his Wes Anderson offerings I was genuinely delighted to be asked by my editor if I’d like to cover this event. While I am closer in character to Murray’s famous grumpy cynic in Groundhog Day I’d like to think I’m only an ice sculpture away from that facade melting away.
As I set off to the Festival Theatre my phone buzzed with messages asking me where I planned to watch the England match and thankfully had a much better place to be. Knowing absolutely nothing about the event (see cultural trashfire reference) I was further delighted to discover what I would be witness to. On paper it sounds like the exact kind of madcap idea Murray gets up to in his spare time: An audience with Bill Murray doing whatever he feels like. And he feels like reading American literature backed with chamber music. If it was anyone else but Bill Murray it would perhaps be a bit pretentious, the theatre would certainly be emptier, but it somehow works.
Early on, he calls it out directly “now this is the point that some of you may be looking at your partner and thinking:” before pulling a grimace. He’s not wrong, following his opening of reading Ernest Hemingway followed by Prelude from Suite No 1 by Johann Sebastian Bach you know you’re in for something different. It’s a difficult sell. To some extent it’s like listening to the first couple of tracks by your new favourite band on their follow up album; it takes a while to bed in. It’s ramshackle and odd, often not too coherent, but there’s still charm there to pull you through. Every now and then Murray senses a joke or dance may be needed to gentle steer the audience along with him.
While Murray is the glue of the evening he’s certainly surrounded himself with extremely talented friends: Jan Vogler’s effortless and rich cello, Mira Wang, dressed in white flowing sparkles, cradles a hypnotising Stradivari violin, and Vanessa Perez on the luscious piano. Together it really works, they weave their way around Murray’s quirkier moments. As the performance starts to gel the sands shift again as wondrously Murray moves away from spoken word and starts to sing. I’m thrown back to that scene in Ghostbusters where for a moment I always think he’s going to burst into song during the “Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma” scene so it’s a lifelong dream to finally see the spark blossom into the flame.
Later there’s a crowd sing along of both It Ain’t Necessarily So and a spine-tingling encore of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond that went down rapturously but the highlight for me was the achingly beautiful version of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair that hit home hard enough to haunt me. Later Murray reads a chapter from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then James Thurber’s If Grant Had Been Drinking At Appomattox, which imagines a drunk Ulysses Grant getting confused when accepting the surrender of General Lee at the end of the Civil War. Maybe you think I’m making all this up. Reflecting back, the evening certainly does sound extremely strange!
While a rowsing encore followed (where Murray raced through the crowd throwing roses to audience members) the highlight for me was a medley of songs from West Side Story. The always perfect, Somewhere, Murray’s genderfluid version of I Feel Pretty, and finally America. Several standing ovations followed.
While not always successful and certainly not always what you were expecting, it was wonderful to see Murray and his friends doing something that they clearly love. It was certainly a lot better than watching England play football.
For more on the programme of events at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, click here.