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Spotlight on… West End Live 2019

Spotlight on… West End Live 2019

Above… Photo: Pamela Raith Photography.

Reviewed by Sarah Jessica Darley, courtesy of

What is it like to attend West End Live and not just watch the performances on YouTube via OfficialLondonTheatre? This is a question I have asked myself many times over the years, but, as of the 22nd and 23rd June this year, I finally have my answer.

Before getting too deep into my thoughts upon attending this amazing event, I must admit that my experience is somewhat filtered from the norm. I was fortunate to have been granted priority access, in the form of a semi-horrendous, neon-orange wristband, which allowed me to skip the queues and enter Trafalgar Square before the general public.

From scrolling through #WestEndLIVE on Twitter, I know that (especially on the Saturday) queuing was ridiculous, poorly handled, and often required you to be waiting for upwards of three hours before the gates opened to guarantee a decent spot. Although I am a little guilty that I didn’t have to queue and was probably infringing upon the view of someone who had, having such a wonderful view of the stage throughout the weekend was something I would never have traded.

As we entered the square – to the speakers blaring Breaking Free from High School Musical – the effort and love invested into the event was clear. After all, West End Live is a free event hosted by London Theatre and the Mayor of London, although they probably turned a small profit through merchandise sales. Furthermore, every single performance, performer, and presenter was upon the stage with only the incentive of the crowd’s enthusiasm; as if we needed any further proof that West End Live is an event born out of a love for live theatre.

On the Saturday, performances were due to start at 11am – with the event allowing entrance from 10am onwards – beginning with the current London cast of Aladdin. As we waited to be transported to the Whole New World of Agrabah, the square became packed with eager fans. However, even before the stage was truly set, the sun was already causing issues. There are two different views to take upon the weather: 1.) It was a beautifully sunny and warm day; 2.) It was too hot, especially for standing in direct sunlight for upwards of six hours. If I had to name the biggest downside of attending West End Live this year, instead of sitting behind my computer and vicariously living it through YouTube, it would be the heat.

On the Saturday my joy and enthusiasm for the performances quickly shifted to an awareness of how ill-equipped the event was for the weather. At about 3 o’clock – after lasting five hours stood in a single spot under the sun – I finally conceded my prime view to go in search of shade and water.

I had arrived with plenty of sun-cream and water, but still found my preparations lacking. As I escaped the crowd, I began to feel the effects of sunstroke set in. I desperately needed to get into the shade. However, each of the sponsor marquees (the only areas, other than the stage, provided with cover) possessed a long line of people waiting to try their luck at the tombola or have their faces painted. So my mind turned to water, the vendors of which were all located on one side of Trafalgar Square. For approximately 30,000 people there were only three places from which to buy water. This felt a huge design flaw, especially as the queues of dehydrated people proved the overwhelming need for more outlets, let alone the extra profit that could have been made had they provided them. Eventually I gave up on my search and ended up having to leave early to find respite inside the National Gallery.
With the bad parts of the Saturday now covered I can turn to the good; the bits that made it all worthwhile and guaranteed my returning the next day; the parts that cannot be captured by a camera, no matter how determined I was to try.

The experience of live theatre upon a festival stage
There is nothing quite like it. Not even London Theatre’s expert videos, which I do recommend watching if you want to see even a fraction of the brilliance of West End Live. But there is a strange sort of flattening experienced through video performances; the reduction of the crowd to a murmur behind the microphone, the clipping of the day into palatable pieces instead of an overarching extravaganza, the removal of Magic Radio’s presenters stumbling their way through mispronunciations and musical puns.

The festival set-up afforded the shows a strange sort of freedom, the chance to decide just how they wanted to present themselves to an audience. Casts came forward in varied states of costuming and setting, working as an ensemble or singing solos, dancing, blocking; basically, performing however they saw fit. Because of this, each ten-minute song selection was given an element of the unexpected, a new perspective for the talent and material of each West End show.

As mentioned, Aladdin opened the two-day festival, with London’s very own Genie, Trevor Dion Nicholas, compering. Although the cast performed without costume, its exotic absence was not felt. Menken’s iconic score soared unimpeded by the show’s famous theatricality. In a rich, ensemble show, Aladdin’s set-list allowed for current principals (Matthew Croke, Courtney Reed and Trevor Dion Nicholas) to establish themselves as individuals, creating the space for their voices to rise above Disney’s classic soundtrack. Their performance set the tone for the day, with astounding sweeps of emotions and the accompaniment of Trafalgar Square’s accumulative voices.

Following Aladdin, we were treated to a performance from new show, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ the Musical, based on Sue Townsend’s iconic coming-of-age story. The show had been in previews for less than a fortnight when WWL occured, which meant it hadn’t had much of a chance of establishing a fan-base in time for the weekend. Instead, the cast had to convince us that we ought to see their show and learn the songs by heart. To their credit, the performance was aching with energy and enthusiasm, brought together brilliantly by one of the most diverse casts to walk the West End Live stage. Jumping around to a song proclaiming them to be “just a bit misunderstood” gave the show an immediate likeability, making it very relatable.

As well as new musicals, the weekend welcomed performances from well-established and highly-loved West End staples. Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables reminded us all just why they are some of the longest running shows in town – with each showcasing the great depth of emotion and lyrical skill of their respective scores. It was during these performances that the communal love and knowledge of the crowd for the genre of musical theatre truly became overwhelming. There are moments I will never forget…

The great sigh exhaled by all as the opening bars of Wicked’s For Good filled the air; the haunting chorus we provided for the beautiful titular number of Phantom; or the perfected harmonies of One Day More simultaneously shattering and rebuilding our hearts. Never has my belief in the magic of musical theatre been so strong as during these moments.

A show I would include within the category of emotionally turbulent and unforgettable – if not for its current status as a ‘new musical’ – is Come from Away.

Performing only two songs from the overwhelming score (Welcome to the Rock and Me and the Sky) the cast stood in a simple line, wearing show t-shirts and letting their characters speak through the lyrics alone. As the deafening beat of Welcome to the Rock drummed around Nelson’s Column, echoing in my chest, I knew I was in store for something extraordinary. Like many of those present, I had listened to the Broadway cast recording many times – it is one of the few soundtracks that can bring me to tears every single time – so I thought I knew what to expect. I did not. I am still unsure how to put into words what I felt listening to their voices, and the voices of so many around me, singing with the strange sort of uplifting sorrow associated with the show. I am certain that Come from Away is here to stay.

Throughout the day, it became strangely apparent which shows could lay claim to be this year’s stand-out favourites. To a certain degree the top three are unsurprising; all contemporary shows with pop elements to their scores, plus all three work fantastically well on a festival stage. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Waitress and (above all others) SIX. The popularity of these shows reflects the atmosphere of the event, which was largely attended by under-35s. They are new, shiny and amazing. However, it did leave me a little disheartened to overhear a lacklustre response to revivals such as Fiddler on the Roof or Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which constitute a quintessential element of the genre and legacy of musical theatre. After all, many recognise popular songs from these very shows. Matchmaker and I Don’t Know How to Love Him are considered standards and make frequent appearances upon musical compilation albums. Yet, the response of the crowd dipped during these performances; perhaps more due to the traditional melodies of the music feeling misplaced amongst the tidal wave of contemporary shows?

Layton Williams (Billy Elliot the Musical, Bad Education) provided us with a truly joyful and danceable selection of music from the aforementioned, British-bred Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, cementing the show’s standing as a current fan favourite, and Williams’ own perfection in the role of Jamie New. Dancing was definitely on the agenda throughout the day as we also enjoyed performances from the ever-popular Mamma Mia! (now entering its 20th year), the fast-paced Tina – the Musical, and the brand-new On Your Feet (following the story and songbook of Emilio and Gloria Estefan).

Female-fronted jukebox musicals certainly seemed to be one of the flavours of the day, especially where the songs’ externally popular nature placed them as the perfect material for the crowd to singalong to. Nothing quite beats a good showtune singalong. These didn’t end with Mamma Mia! either, as the yet-to-open musical & Juliet, reworked Bon Jovi (It’s My Life) and Katy Perry (Roar) to great effect during the cast’s first-ever live performance. The brilliant work of & Juliet’s marketing team has seen this show rise to popular acclaim before it has even hit the stage, a fact emphasised by the twice-asked question: “Do you like our t-shirts?” in reference to their #RomeoWho branded show-wear. Proving that the hype is indeed real surrounding this feminist retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, were the ensemble’s jubilant dancing (led by SIX’s Grace Mouat) and Miriam Teak-Lee’s stellar vocals.

Other newbies to the WWL stage and, indeed West End, included off-Broadway hit The View Upstairs, The Worst Witch, plus (courtesy of MT Fest 2019) Nerds and But I’m a Cheerleader! Each of these shows brought something unique to the schedule: representation, magic, humour and pride. I am hopeful their presence at the festival, and the view-count of London Theatre’s uploads of their respective performances, will guarantee receiving more content for them to establish themselves in London.

Social media has, over the past five years or so, proved itself to be an invaluable asset in successfully creating a memorable musical. In no show is this more evidenced than SIX, which has made West End history through its popular sing-along performances and allowing of phones and cameras during their final Mega-Six number. The Tudor-queens-turned-pop-princesses made their world premiere and West End Live debut last year and have since become social media sensations – selling out every night at the Arts Theatre. During the West End Live weekend, the six queens performed two different sets, one on each day. Their interchanging of songs between Saturday and Sunday set them apart from other repeat shows such as Waitress, and (although an extra song was added for the Sunday) & Juliet. On the Saturday the cast of SIX proved themselves worthy of their crowns, and their place amongst musical giants such as Phantom and Mamma Mia! The concert-style format of the show allowed an easy transition from theatre to festival stage, creating natural space for audience interaction and anthem-like music. Any and every audience member asked on candid camera “What is your favourite show?” answered with a resounding “SIX!”

When SIX opened Sunday’s schedule, the cast returned, much to their fans’ delight, featuring alternate queens, Vicki Manser and Grace Mouat (in addition to having Courtney Stapleton step in on the previous day). Watching the stigma of understudies fall away as this show has climbed into the popular musical theatre sphere has been one of my true joys of the past year. The warmth of reception that each alternate queen has received when announced before a scheduled performance has been truly extraordinary – and perfectly emphasised by each actress’s individualised and non-character-dependent costume, which has made distinct the different qualities they bring to each of Henry VIII’s ex-wives.

If Aladdin set the bar high for the Saturday, SIX succeeded in raising it infinitely more so. Opening with Anne Boleyn’s signature, Don’t Lose Ur Head, a song popular for its sugar-sweet use or irony and contemporary electric sound, Millie O’Connell gave a stunning performance, accompanied not only by her supremely talented court, but also the potentially overenthusiastic crowd who scream-shouted along with all their might.

The Sunday schedule brought a heavy dose of theatrical diversity with performances from Brainiac Live, Ballet Boyz, The Illusionists, Magic Mike Live and Yummy marking a departure from pure musical theatre. These ventures into the unknown were not unwelcomed, allowing those present to realise how compelling a performance can be, even when it doesn’t feature the potential to sing along.

One performance that did guarantee a universal singalong, however, was The Lion King. Stepping out of their award-winning costumes and sets, the Disney cast took the short trip from the Lyceum Theatre to rapturous applause. It is easy to forget the exceptional level of talent and effort required to pull off such a vocally challenging score when performers are usually seen draped behind many layers of iconic pageantry. Gugwana Dlamini and her company’s rendition of the soul-warming Circle of Life is certain to echo in the minds of all who witnessed its gravity, especially as Disney’s new Lion King movie (I cannot in good conscience term it ‘live-action’) is on the horizon.

Also approaching, are two new, and one returning, musicals: Brooklyn the Musical, Falsettos and Avenue Q. Many theatre fans have been awaiting Falsettos’ arrival upon British shores, and the fact that, despite WWL being the first-ever performance by the cast (they didn’t start rehearsals until July), the crowd sang along with vigour to I’m Breaking Down – just one example of the comedic lyrical genius found within the heartfelt score. Yet, exceeding even the anticipation for Falsettos, was the excitement brought to the stage in the form of brightly coloured puppets.

Avenue Q is unapologetic, irreverent, and hilarious; a popular, if not unconventional, musical in anyone’s book. The touring cast positively erupted onto the stage with Schadenfreude (for those who don’t know, ‘Schadenfreude’ is German for feeling happiness at the misfortune of others) stamping their own mark with perfect comic timing upon the West End. Although to anyone who knows the show’s songbook as well as I do, their set-list played it rather safe in terms of song choices (leaving out the very controversial hits Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and If You Were Gay). Their ten-minute slot was packed with the every turbulent high and low that the comedic show could manage. From the entire day’s roster of songs, Cecily Redman’s beautifully rich There’s a Fine, Fine Line has stayed with me to an unparalleled degree, causing me to revisit the original cast recording in an attempt to recreate her performance myself.

The show-stealer of this year’s West End Live – if audience reaction to her many appearances is anything to go by – was Lucie Jones, who had just begun her run as Jenna in Waitress. Lucie, especially on Sunday, seemed hard pushed to leave the stage, performing during a total of four sets. Lucie guaranteed her rightful place within our hearts with her emotive and skillful versions of Bad Idea, She Used to Be Mine and (during her solo appearance) What Baking Can Do. The joy Lucie exuded in performing was tangible every time she cupped her ears and called upon the crowd to sing with her as a smile spread across her lips.

Overall, West End Live proved itself to be worth the pain and trouble of travelling and surviving the heat, packing in so many unforgettable performances that my brain has trouble computing the entirety of the event – hence the obvious gaps in my review. My head has still not quite wrapped itself around the incredible variety of talent and material currently available to view in the West End. To stand in that crowd, to feel myself truly belonging amongst the amassed theatre fans, has reinvigorated my love for the medium of live performance.

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