After more than a decade of planning and three years of construction, Alexandra Palace – conceived as “the Palace of the People” – opened in 1873, attracting an initial crowd 100,000 strong. It burned down 16 days later.
London rallied – it got rebuilt within two years. And if there’s an overriding reason to ascend the hilly hinterland of Haringey to sit in on the splurge of socially distanced entertainments taking place in its massy West Hall – reopened to the public for the first time since March – it’s to get (spectacular views aside) an invigorating lungful of pervasive Victorian resilience.
Ally Pally’s history suggests that, instead of hunkering down, the Victorians would have risen to the challenge of Covid by elaborate and probably mechanical means. Certainly watching – or attempting to watch, at some distance – the opening jamboree, a comedy night headlined by Al Murray in character as the Pub Landlord, there were moments when I fantasised about Heath Robinson-esque contraptions that would enable audiences to enjoy the show at closer quarters.
The idea of helping to kickstart performance in the capital – giving entertainers a boost and the public some respite – is a valiant one. But too often the mirth struggled to emanate across the Siberian expanse of the table-dotted space (chill ventilation the order of the day too). The ebullient emcee Sophie Duker – likening the ambience to a GCSE exam hall – had some fun detailing the horrors of pandemic shows, from face-masked audiences (we’re spared that here) to drive-in comedy gigs. The use of car-horns was apparently problematic: “Honking is very intimately acquainted with street harassment.” Duker will go far, but her material couldn’t lift things above tepid.
Likewise, after the first of several intervals, Bella Hull looked like a background noise warm-up act, her forte – coolly off-hand, low-energy barbs – not entirely suited. Politically orientated musical act Jonny and the Baptists belted out a handful of numbers – in general the acoustic was fine, but the lyrics at that volume sounded like gargling.
It’s some credit to Murray that he rescued elation from the jaws from growing ennui. How lovely to hear again the rallying cry of “All hail to the ale!” – and to see his cockney alter-ego frothing at the mouth with perverse jingoistic excitement – “What a time to be alive! This is our Blitz!” he tiraded approvingly, all maniacal glints. “Finally we got one!” He imagined a future child asking a grandparent: “What did you do in the great Covid pandemic of 2020-2028?” And the response: “I did as I was asked to. I did f*** all, for f***ing months.”
His interaction with the audience worked a treat, picking off punters and their newly pointless-sounding jobs like a sniper. At the end of his half-hour set, he had us chorusing that ancient anthem of unbowed determination, “Incy Wincy Spider”.
Fab. And I applaud the project overall. But I left the gargantuan space feeling that if the season is to raise the roof, then there’s definitely room for improvement.
Weekly shows until Oct 31. Tickets: alexandrapalace.com/live