The nuances of economic theory may not be the most obvious source of comedy, but trust Elf Lyons to find a niche concept and run with it at full pelt. While her 2016 show Pelican was about her relationship with her mother, ChiffChaff is inspired by her father: the economics expert and writer, Gerard Lyons. Elf’s aim, she states at the outset, is to “prove that economics is beautiful” and she does this through the unlikely media of mime, clowning and show tunes.
Characteristic Lyons-flavoured chaos ensues – we have blow-up dolls named Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes, Theresa May reimagined as Pennywise the clown, a lion giving birth to an inflatable globe, and several re-written songs, including amusing renditions of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ and ‘Let’s Get Fiscal’.
Elf is a phenomenally skilled and engaging performer. Her usual energetic physicality is present, as is her novel use of props and audience participation – admittedly, these are employed with less success than in last year’s show Swan, which earned her an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination for Best Show. Her ability to give her shows a carefully constructed and satisfying structure is evident and the shape of ChiffChaff is influenced by her father’s advice about public speaking – tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it, then summarise what you’ve just told them. This structure works well and results in some highly effective and entertaining callbacks.
The only problem with the show is that, on a few occasions, the premise is funnier than the execution. The idea of a mime about quantitative easing is hilarious – the actual delivery of it slightly less so.
Elf alternates throughout between talking in her natural voice, presenting as herself, and adopting a glitzy, old-Hollywood personal that is initially a little ill-defined. At the very beginning, it seems like a loose impersonation of Joel Grey in Cabaret, then becomes more like Roxy Hart in Chicago, before settling more decisively into a Marilyn Monroe-style ingénue character. This final incarnation contributes to the whole shtick of presenting a dry topic in an incongruously glamorous fashion and serves her well at various points. At others, it begins to feel a little unnecessary.
That said, Elf’s charisma and enormous talent beguile and delight the audience. It’s impossible not to be utterly charmed by her animated and self-deprecating style. She asserts at various points that she’s going to “be sexy”, but at all times, avoids exploiting her conventional attractiveness with any earnest attempts, and the results are both deeply endearing and genuinely hilarious.
The ingenuity of her ideas is indisputable. The voice recordings of her father talking about fiscal policy are a surprisingly successful element of the show. If you warm to Elf, it’s very hard not to warm to him, too, despite the implied political differences between them and her descriptions of her struggle to win his approval. His game responses to some of her inane challenges, such as “describe economics in five songs”, are frankly delightful. One take away from ChiffChaff, other than a developed understanding of economics, is that Gerard Lyons, Telegraph columnist, former advisor to Boris Johnson and co-founder of ‘Economists for Brexit’, has EXCELLENT taste in music.