I had informed the good people at ‘West End Musical Theatre’, a ‘weekly elite training’ programme for young musical theatre performers from the ages of 12 to 30, of my intention to attend their ‘West End Sings at Christmas’ event. I had not heard of their work previously but they had, as their host and musical director for the evening, Scott Harrison, pointed out, “spammed the hell” out of this seasonal concert on social media, and it caught my attention, not least because of a relatively stellar line-up.
Their initial response was to tweet back, firstly to thank me for my support, and then asking if I would be putting in a review of their concert. I was about to start a Tube journey when that tweet came through, and by the time I resurfaced from the Northern line, that tweet regarding a possible review had been deleted. They have their reasons for so keenly asking in the first instance. Just this week I had a producer contact me with some questions about a review they had received regarding a charity event, which was, apparently, not only unkind but unprofessional, and there is something slightly different about reviewing a ‘one night only’ charity gala concert as opposed to a longer running theatrical production. This then, to clarify, is most certainly not a review of ‘West End Sings at Christmas’, even if you find yourself struggling to truly believe it isn’t should you choose to read on.
I found it difficult to warm to Harrison at times as host. Although he is evidently warm-hearted and generous, as evidenced by his students keenly showing their appreciation for him and co-director Lindsey Page, he had a habit of asking for further applause from the audience for a particular performer and/or group, only to almost immediately talk over that same applause, forcing the audience to choose between abruptly ceasing applauding to listen to him or to ignore him and continue. It got rather irritating, to be blunt: if he wanted us to put our hands together once more, we should have been allowed to do so without interruption. It rather defeats the purpose otherwise. One or two digs at the purported unruliness of his students came across as unnecessarily unconstructive, though I am fully prepared to accept this may well be simple banter.
And breathe. An underwhelming start saw the full ensemble of West End MT (as they like to be known) leaving an awful lot of the legwork in ‘O Holy Night’ to two soloists: this large company, as it turns out, can sing beautifully as a de facto choir – a later rendering of the ‘Ave Maria’ demonstrated this. They nailed it, as it were, as they did the contemporary tunes that made up a long finale, including that Mariah Carey number.
I had no idea why the Girls Aloud number ‘The Promise’ was included in the programme – although it was a crowd-pleaser for virtually everyone except me (I found it too repetitive and distinctly non-Christmassy). I wondered if it had been a Christmas hit for that ‘girl group’, but as a single it was released in October 2008 and as part of their ‘Out of Control’ album on 3 November 2008. At least ‘River’ sung by Adrian Hansel (I assume the Joni Mitchell song, as it was frankly depressing), was about someone’s Christmas experience. With hindsight, it was a good choice to include it in a Christmas concert – not everyone looks forward to the festive season for various reasons, and it would be quite wrong to assume all of those people are twenty-first century versions of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Worth mentioning is 16-year-old Toby Turpin, who kicked off post-interval proceedings with gusto and confidence. He is nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a New Production of a Musical in the Broadway World UK Awards 2016, although the list of nominees is quite long. (The record, I think, is 71 nominees, for Understudy of the Year.) The NYMT (National Youth Music Theatre) put on a production of Spring Awakening at the Leicester Curve Theatre earlier this year, and it is for his role as Mortiz Stiefel that Turpin is nominated.
All in all, this proved a borderline chaotic evening. Poor Scott Harrison had no idea what was going on himself half the time. He was, to be fair, quick to correct himself each time, but with the number of corrections required, I hope his team and students appreciate the need for attention to detail, and what can happen when it comes up short. Still, the show came up trumps with Amy Lennox singing ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, originally made famous by the alternative rock band Keane (Harrison’s point of reference was the Lily Allen version used for the 2013 John Lewis Christmas advert), and Lily Frazer’s ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’ And there’s nothing quite like seeing a historic central London Wren church, St Clement Danes, rocking out to the strains of Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’.