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A symphony, a small band and a singalong

The idea of Ronan Keating in concert flanked by the sixty-five piece City Light Symphony Orchestra intrigued me enough to pop along to the Royal Albert Hall to see it. I didn’t know very many of the songs, of course, apart from that infamous cover of Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ (even if I still don’t understand why it’s the son’s fault for being “still young”, as he didn’t choose when to be born, or even to be born in the first place), and Keating’s version of ‘When You Say Nothing at All’, which featured in the Richard Curtis movie Notting Hill. And one other: I don’t mind admitting Keating had me at ‘hello’ by opening with ‘No Matter What’, from the musical Whistle Down The Wind, an Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman collaboration.

The orchestra was in fine form, too, conducted by Anthony Gabriele. Keating, a grandfather at forty-six years old, knew what he was doing: sharply suited and booted, he spoke eloquently about his family, and former bandmates. Given his pop star credentials, the audience could have been a lot worse – there were a few heckles in between songs but the music itself was undisturbed. A couple of catty women two rows behind me thought it was funny that Keating, an Irishman, said ‘mammies’ instead of ‘mummies’. Aside from the banality and snobbery in the first place, it was a most inappropriate moment to scoff, as the salient point Keating was making was that he lost his mother to cancer about twenty-five years ago, and so it’s not always easy watching others celebrate on Mother’s Day (when this concert happened to be taking place) knowing he can’t have a similar experience.

Ronan Keating and the City Light Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: Marc Gilgen

There were reminisces of his Boyzone days, and the audience was quick to applaud a brief honour to Keating’s late bandmate, Stephen Gately. I wouldn’t have expected Keating’s special guest to be Gary Barlow, the Take That frontman, and a duet of ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ resulted in an ecstatic response, leaving Gabriele eventually to turn to the audience and appeal for calm before the next orchestral piece. Keating’s tribute to Burt Bacharach, whom he had collaborated with, was delightful. He sent the Albert Hall audience home well before 10pm, at least partly because he had a breakfast radio show to do at 6am the following morning.

The Songsmiths are a musical theatre trio who I was first introduced to at ‘Vision of You’, a series of concerts very different, despite the title, to Ronan Keating’s music. Simon Gordon, Ben Purkiss and Patrick O’Sullivan had been in previous casts of Bat Out of Hell: The Musical – Gordon took over Purkiss’ role (as the latter often points out). After O’Sullivan left the show, he went on to play Matthew Muggins in a stage adaptation of Doctor Dollitle, although that tour ended early, less than three months after it opened. Being largely ignorant of matters pertaining to the Eurovision Song Contest, I had to rely on fellow audience members afterwards, as well as O’Sullivan himself, for details on his bid to represent Ireland at the 2022 Contest – a contest for the Contest was won by Brooke Scullion, from Derry, with a song called ‘That’s Rich’, which she co-wrote. Still, he got to perform on national television.

It had proven difficult, Gordon said after the show, to get the three of them together for actually do their first full-length concert (in a venue that limits the running time of its shows to sixty minutes) – not because they didn’t get on, but because they all had various projects on the go, some of which are ongoing. O’Sullivan’s partner, Georgia Carling, Bat Out of Hell: the Musical’s original Valkyrie, convinced me to book for the touring production of ‘Queen by Candlelight’ when it comes to Oxford later this year: the line-up is expected to include her good self and Giovanni Spanò, who previously played Ledoux in Bat. It’s a cliché to describe theatre companies as families, but the friendships and collaborations that continue long after those ‘hot summer nights’ at the London Coliseum in 2017 is a testament to how such a magnificent (in my opinion, anyway) show has brought people together – and we fans are happy to support them, because, y’know, wherever they are, and wherever they go, there’s always gonna be some light.

Ben Purkiss, Patrick O'Sullivan and Simon Gordon. Photo credit: Sarah Beney

The show itself was a short and sweet affair, with their special guest Maddison Firth, or Maddi to her friends and industry colleagues, performing ‘I Say No’ from Heathers the Musical. The lads’ own offerings were an eclectic mix, including a medley of songs made famous by The Beach Boys, and later, Sir Elton John’s ‘Rocketman’. Quite refreshingly, the audience was spared long backstories and explanations of what a particular song means to them as performers, allowing us to enjoy the tunes for what they are.

The ‘last song’ is never really the last song at concerts like these, but even when the house lights actually did go back up, it was over all too soon. The critic in me insists it is better to leave people wanting more than to outstay one’s welcome. But the critic in me is also acutely aware that The Songsmith’s debut album is marginally longer than their debut concert was! Still, these boys harmonise brilliantly, and they apparently have a ‘world tour’ (albeit on cruise liners) coming up, as well as a Christmas album. It remains to be seen which Christmas their Christmas album will be on sale in time for...

My little excursion away from the reviewing circuit ended with a visit to a singalong performance of Bat Out of Hell: the Musical, which also included a costume competition. Putting fans of the show against one another, as it were, might have resulted in some ugly behaviour, but it was all good-spirited in the end. I have no idea what the criteria was for the judging panel to decide on the ‘best’ costume, but having seen the winning entry, it appears there were marks for originality.

Jenny, costume competition winner. Photo credit: Dewynters/Bat Out of Hell the Musical Facebook page

While the singalong shows at Bat’s previous incarnation at the Dominion Theatre permitted the audience to participate in the spoken dialogue, the ‘housekeeping rules’ were revised for the Peacock Theatre run. It is a sing-a-long, not a speak-a-long, musical director Iestyn Griffiths (‘yess-tin’, for those who are asking) clarified before we got underway, with the words supplied on screens only for sung lyrics. That rule was eventually dispensed with in the second half as lead actor Glenn Adamson signalled to the audience to join him in the question asked at the top of (ironically enough) ‘You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)’.

In the more intimate setting of the Peacock Theatre, it was easier to hear the audience singing away – the sheer vastness of the Dominion left a cast member tweeting at the interval, “Come on!” as they struggled to hear us. And with so much cut out in terms of dialogue in the 2023 version, the breaks in singing weren’t as long as they were, so I found it a tad more exhausting this time around. Still, it was a great experience.

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