Liverpool’s old Playhouse Theatre has seen many homecomings over its 157-year history, but few could have been as warm and heartfelt as that which welcomed poet Roger McGough back to the city.

McGough was at the Playhouse for one night only to perform his one-man show, “Alive and Gigging”, to a packed house, yet it felt like it was much more than another stop on another tour. McGough is synonymous with the city, and the city (at least when it comes to a love of words) has become synonymous with McGough. If Liverpool has a reputation for wit and words, it has continued to develop in part because McGough has developed his reputation for wit and words. He remains the most high-profile of the group of poets that include Adrian Henri and Brian Patten who were collectively known as “the Mersey sound” in the 1960s.

He left the city to become one of the nation’s few high-profile working poets, establishing a career in verse and achieving popularity rarely achieved by perhaps more lettered authors, though he has letters too. Awarded a CBE by the Queen, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as well as honorary Chairman of the Poetry Society. Yet that can distract from McGough’s talent which is in twisting logic and words to usually comic effect. And it was this gift he brought back with him to the Playhouse.

The eighty-five-minute set was a laid-back affair, with the (coincidentally) 85-year-old McGough not looking anything like his age. Lean and sharp, relaxed and playful, McGough delivered most of the set from a stool from behind a lectern – a poet as prolific as McGough cannot be expected to memorise even a fraction of what he’s written – but his delivery was exactly as we’ve come to know from a man who was rarely away from our TV screens during the seventies and eighties. This was recognisably McGough, still sporting the gold earring in his left ear, his hair thinner than it was, but now (paradoxically) without the circular glasses that were almost his trademark.

He began by celebrating Liverpool’s achievements as the host of Eurovision. “Coming to Liverpool is like coming to a party as everybody is leaving,” he quipped, before explaining his plans for the tour had originally been for a lavish spectacular including showgirls, fireworks, and concluding with a sell-out show at the Liverpool Arena. It was the kind of tall tale with which McGough would embroider the evening. Was his story about Jimi Hendrix true? It probably had more veracity than the Christmas Party he claimed to have once attended at Ken Dodd’s house where John Lennon played the piano and Jurgen Klopp was there with his daughter “Clipperty”.

The first half was a loose chronology of his work, including many old poems but a few that are new, such as the verse written for the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, which has been exhibiting work by Ukrainian photographers. “Do not call me China or Russia, Ukraine or Taiwan,” read McGough. “I’m not your Israel or Austria, your America or United Kingdom. I am land. I have no name but Earth. Call me World”.

This is another of McGough’s talents: an ability to allow weighty matters to ebb and flow within and around his verse. Evolutionary annihilation and ongoing wars gave way to audience interaction (guess the rhyme) which brought the first half to an end. After a 20-minute break, McGough came back to the stage with a version of ‘Lilly the Pink’, the hit made famous by The Scaffold, the supergroup of Liverpool alumni including Mike McGear, John Gorman, and McGough. But part of the evening’s fun was seeing McGough bring his work up to date. This wasn’t the ‘Lilly the Pink’ from 1968. This was Lilly in 2023. “Oh Rishi Rishi, how I wish he could do the job he’s paid to do-hoo-hoo,” sang McGough from the wings. “He’ll need more than medicinal compound, to stop us falling down the loo.”

The second half continued the chronology, including tales about a pair of Paul McCartney’s moth-eaten trousers, a very famous dog, and a few more digs at the government (which always got the bigger cheer). A few poems about growing old hinted that the evening was coming to an end and it appeared that McGough was going to conclude with his most famous poem, “Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death”.

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holy water death

not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

Except McGough could not leave it there and gave the audience a different twist. “Let me die an old man’s death” was not so much a change of heart but a realisation that there’s a value in simply growing old without the drama.

Let me die an old man’s death
not a car crash, whiplash,
one more for the road kind of death
not a gun in hand in a far-off land
landmine in the sand death

It was less a poem of lament than it was a poem about gratitude, as McGough seemed to be at the big turnout for his show. He left the stage clearly moved and then returned briefly to acknowledge the applause before the stage lights dimmed.

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