Review: Could Ben Folds at the Theatre Royal prove to be the highlight of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival?

NNF18 - Ben Folds and a Piano. Photo: Courtesy of Norfolk and Norwich Festival

NNF18 - Ben Folds and a Piano. Photo: Courtesy of Norfolk and Norwich Festival - Credit: Courtesy of Norfolk and Norwich Festival

This feels exactly like a festival show should. The rare chance to see a genuine worldwide and unique talent doing something extraordinary.

Ben Folds at the piano. Photo: Anthony Scarlati

Ben Folds at the piano. Photo: Anthony Scarlati - Credit: Anthony Scarlati

And my word does it make for a brilliant and memorable night - and as one colleague predicted as we left Norwich's Theatre Royal with wide smiles on our faces - possibly even the highlight of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

I'm talking about Ben Folds and his epic two-hour Saturday night solo show at Norwich's Theatre Royal.

For the uninitiated, Folds was once the pianist and frontman in the not-so-aptly named trio, Ben Folds Five, whose catchy piano-based pop and heartfelt ballads saw them build up a large following in the 1990s.

Now divorced from that band, he normally tours with his own musicians, but tonight he's here on his own armed with just his trusty piano (and a drum kit as we will later learn when he suddenly breaks into an amazing three-minute solo).

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And if we didn't know it already, it only takes a few minutes for Folds to remind us of how lucky we are to have this show in Norwich, as he remembers his last gig here in 2000 (wrongly as it turns out when a fan in the crowd corrects him that it was in fact 1997).

Folds' patter with the crowd is, for me, one of the highlights of the evening. As he himself admits, he used to have a reputation for being difficult, but tonight he is charm personified, and very funny with it, taking us through key moments and incidents of his career, giving the show a real feeling of intimacy.

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But good chat is nothing if the tunes fall flat and thankfully they do not as he whizzes through songs from every stage of his impressive musical career so far.

Purists of the band where he made his name may have been disappointed not to have heard a few more of the 'hits', but when you have acts with such a back catalogue as his it can often be too easy to worry about what they didn't play, than simply enjoy what they do.

Fortunately, each song, old and new, gets a rapturous reception. At times Folds has the crowd in the palm of his hands as he makes up for a lack of band members by getting us to provide the harmonies. Intimate and inclusive as well, it feels like he's enjoying it as much as we are.

Highlights are many, but include Brick, The Luckiest, Uncle Walter and encore song Rock This B***h in Norwich, especially written about his time back in the city.

In it we learn his hotel window didn't open, the theatre needs a new tumble dryer and that Folds has to be, if not already, regarded as one of the truly great songwriters of the last 25 years.

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