INTERVIEW: Musical satirist Mitch Benn

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Comic-with-guitar Mitch Benn, well-known for his musical turns on Radio 4’s The Now Show, talks to Gill Sutherland about bringing his new show, Don’t Fear The Reaper, to Stratford this weekend (14th October)

It’s been a morbid time for musical satirist Mitch Benn; he’s turned 46 — over the hill by anyone’s standards — his personal life is in turmoil, and his childhood heroes are dropping like flies. At times like these, a man feels the Reaper creeping up on him… But is death anything to fear? And is it really the end? Mitch confronts his — and our — mortality with hilarious (and tuneful) consequences at the Bear Pit this Saturday.

“This show is about death and mortality,” says Mitch cheerily down the phone from his London home, which he shares with his wife and two young daughters. “I came up with the idea quite a while ago; it was in part inspired by that weird onslaught of celebrity deaths in 2016.”

Mitch is on something of a mission to get us contemplating death more openly. He explains: “In terms of universality and truths the one thing we absolutely have in common is that we will die. But for some reason it is the one thing that no one wants to talk about — whether that’s seriously or in a light-hearted or satirical way. So I thought that would be a good angle for a show and it’s proved to be very popular. It tries to be an uplifting!”

After the death of his much-loved dad, Michael Benn, a year ago, Mitch says facing his own loss is at the heart of the show.

Don’t Fear the Reaper was originally conceived as a show for the Edinburgh Festival, which Mitch then took on tour. “My dad died after a long illness so I knew it was coming… the initial version of the show ended on a cliffhanger, but then he died after Edinburgh and before the tour, so the whole show now works up to that.”

Mitch originally comes from Liverpool, where he has a large extended family. He says the show is in part a tribute to his dad. “He was a remarkable guy,” says Mitch. “But there will be no statues dedicated to him or streets named after him – so this show is dedicated to him.”

Recalling his dad’s funeral Mitch continues: “It was riotously entertaining; and it would have been utterly disrespectful to his memory if it had been anything else because he was the funniest man I ever met. I owe him an incalculable amount in terms of what kind of person I am and what motivates me.”

Speaking about how he became a musical performer, Mitch says there was always music at home. In fact his mum and dad were “beatniks” on the 1960s local folk circuit, but that he sort of stumbled into performing while at Edinburgh University. “I was doing a Spanish and French degree and had to go and live somewhere French-speaking and ended up in Montreal. At uni I had been involved in the improv comedy club, The Improverts, and was put in contact with the improv scene in the city through that — I ended up doing open spots and it went down well.”

Mitch is well known to listeners of Radio 4 for his satirical topical songs on The Now Show, where he has riffed on everything from BBC Licence fees, Obama, and the invasion of IKEA.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I must have written a song on every conceivable subject,” laughs Mitch.

Asked how he goes about creating his songs, he explains: “Rather than starting with music or lyrics, with a comedy song you start with what the joke is. Sometimes that will instantly suggest a musical form — for instance with the IKEA song conjuring visions of invading Vikings, Viking metal was the obvious choice.”

For the Don’t Fear the Reaper show Mitch has come up with some new songs, including Stress (“because that’s what kills people”); Try Not to Die (inspired by trying to avoid being trumped by a bigger celebrity death – “like when poor Farah Fawcett died on the same day as Michael Jackson everyone forgot about her” says Mitch); and last but not least Zombie Rock’n’Roll Apocalypse.

Speaking about what he hopes the audience will get from the show, Mitch says:

“Obviously I want them to laugh at some point, but I don’t want to dictate, I’m just happy people turn up! Everything else is a bonus! There’s some silly moments but hopefully some moving heartfelt moments. It’s personal and honest,” adds Mitch.

When and where: Mitch Benn’s Don’t Fear The Reaper comes to The Bear Pit Theatre, Rother Street, Stratford, on Saturday (14th October) at 7.30pm. Tickets are £14 (£12 concessions) and are available from the RSC box office on 01789 403416 or visit www.thebearpit.org.uk