Review – West End Eurovision 2014 – The Final Battle – Dominion Theatre, 22nd May 2014

West End Eurovision 2014Our second time of seeing West End Eurovision – our first one, in 2011 was a complete hoot. Unfortunately it’s always held on a Thursday night and there’s work the next day unless you plan very carefully. So that’s what we did this year. It’s being called “The Final Battle”, with a very sad threat of there being no more in the future – I guess they must be very arduous to organise. I’m always amazed at the keenness and competitiveness behind it all. “Battle” is indeed a suitable word.

drinks receptionIt’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. The event involves the casts of many West End shows, all coming together to perform a Eurovision song, which gets voted on by the star jury, their peers from the other shows, and us, the rabble in the audience. Before the night, they’ve already filmed their idents – little introductory movies for each performance – which you can still see on youtube. Vote for your favourite and the MAD Trust receive £1. I voted for my favourite five (Mr Generous). After you’ve seen the performances, you are then invited to turn on your mobile phones (really? Did anyone actually turn theirs off?) and vote for your favourite performance. Apparently the whole thing raised £66,000 this year for the charity, which is not bad going.

Everyone arrivingWe paid extra for the VIP seats, primarily because we wanted a good view of the show, and of course we were happy to donate more to support the very good works of MAD Trust, but also in the hope of doing some star-spotting. More on that later. But with our bronze coloured VIP wristbands gleaming, we made our way up the stairs to the Studio at the Dominion, where the Drinks Reception was to take place. And a very jolly affair it was too. There was a brief address by chairman David Pendlebury, where he welcomed us all, introduced us to the jury members (of whom only Rylan Clark was actually there, resplendent in his Conchita Wurst outfit), told us all to have a great night and suggested that it might – just might – not be the last of these events. Yes, you heard it here first. (Unless you were there too.) We kept on bumping into David Pendlebury during the course of the evening and he seems a jolly nice chap.

The JuryFuelled with a second plastic mug of cava, we made our way to our seats – and they were pretty magnificent. Middle of row G, on the central aisle, fantastic views. I knew that some of our Eurovision friends were also going to be there, so we scouted around and found them for some pre-show hugs and quips. Back in our seats, awaiting the slightly-later-than 11.30pm start (there was no way all those people were going to make their way from the bars to their seats by 11.30), Mrs Chrisparkle was overawed with the incredible vibe in the place. It felt so exciting. The atmosphere was electric.

Making Your Mind UpOur host was the superb Richard Gauntlett. I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but he was excellent at keeping everything fast moving and really funny. Our competitors (over 230 of them apparently), he said, were all backstage more nervous than Max Clifford looking for the soap. The resident cast of We Will Rock You came on for the opening number of the night, “The Show Must Go On”. Ironic, said Mr Gauntlett, considering it’s closing on Saturday week. I’ve never had the remotest interest in seeing We Will Rock You – but I have to say, it was a pretty stunning start to the show.

Ding A DongHe then introduced us to the judges, Rylan Clark, Lesley Joseph, Caroline Quentin and Graham Norton. They all sat in the box to the left, like the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf going on a double date. They were very enthusiastic all night, and came up with some wonderful lines. Culture snob that I am, I really expected not to like Rylan, who I’d never seen before; but I must be honest, I thought he came across as a really likeable funny guy.

Rock 'n' Roll KidsOnto the contest proper, with the first of nine entries – the cast of Once performing Bucks Fizz’ Making Your Mind Up. It started off as a typical spoof of the group, dressed in the same colours, ripping off the skirts, but then went AWOL as a troupe of leprechauns joined in, fiddles and Irish dance routines blazing. Michael Flatley would turn in his grave. Very entertaining, with nice musical interludes from Riverdance and We Will Rock You.

Flying the FlagNext up was cast of The Book of Mormon performing Teach-In’s Ding-a-Dong, the 1975 winner for the Netherlands. The perfect choice in many ways, given the Mormons’ predilection for doorbelling activities. Their ident, as The Real Housewives of Uganda, was brilliant, and their live performance carried on with the same characterisation. Flinging babies (not real ones) about as props, they did a lovely version of the song, first accompanied by some dancing missionaries, then by tribal dancers – it was like 1976 and Ipi Tombi all over again. Of course, being from the Book of Mormon, this was never going to be devoid of foul language and dubious taste – and in the end the Real Housewives of Uganda removed their traditional costumes to reveal their late night Kampala nightspot little black dresses. Really funny – the audience loved it.

CongratulationsOur third act was The Commitments cast performing Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Ireland’s winning entry from 1994. Graham Norton showed himself up by confessing he’d never heard it or of it. Back to Fan Camp for you sir. Unfortunately there was a false start with this one, as the microphones on stage failed. It would have been great if it had been Bandido (Spain 1990 – if you know the song, you’ll get the reference). It started with some evocative shadow dancing, but then got infiltrated by characters from other shows to great comic effect. A Mormon elder, a Mamma Mia Abba-type, Jean Valjean, Billy Elliot and the Phantom (probably more) all ended up singing together. By about this stage you realised that the standard of entries was extremely high.

Disco TangoAfter a short appearance by Harriet Thorpe, telling us more about the good work of the Trust, it was back to the show and, probably my favourite of the evening, the cast of Les Miserables performing Flying The Flag, Scooch’s Magnum Opus for the United Kingdom from 2007. It started with a lone barricader plaintively emoting about flying the flag – of course, it’s the French flag (they are Les Mis after all), which was followed by an invasion of BA type air crew doing all the usual moves with even a message from Captain Cameron Mackintosh on the video wall. The inventive use of the French flag throughout made it unquestionably Les Mis, but alongside this archetypal British comedy song, it made a terrific combination.

Jan JanThe cast of the Phantom of the Opera took to the stage to perform Congratulations – and after the high energy of all the previous entries, this one had a slightly less showbizzy feel to it, although they also chucked in elements of Riverdance and there was also a massive Rubik’s cube on stage for some reason. Congratulations though was an appropriate choice to celebrate performer Philip Griffiths’ record as the longest running performer on the West End stage – 34 consecutive years I believe. Then we had the cast of The Bodyguard performing Disco Tango in the original Danish, Tommy Seebach’s magic little ditty from 1979. Quirky, comic and somewhat surreal, it’s not often you get to hear Beverley Knight singing in Viking. Maybe because it wasn’t in English there wasn’t quite the opportunity to represent the lyrics in the performance, but still it was very enjoyable.

Marry MeAfter the interval, where Mrs C and I met more Eurovision friends and decided to stick with sparkling water to help our overall health, we returned to see the cast of Wicked perform Jan Jan, Armenia’s 2009 contribution. Never one of my favourite songs, but this looked beautiful, with atmospheric lighting and glistening blue overcoats giving way to spangly white outfits. This led on to a frankly bonkers Marry Me (Finland 2013) from the cast of Billy Elliot; great choice of song, lots of humour, a disassociation of costumes, all frantic and frenetic. I think the jury were a bit puzzled by that one. The last entry of the night was the cast of Mamma Mia performing Waterloo – which sounds a bit unadventurous, considering Waterloo is the finale number in their show – but was actually hysterical. Like the Commitments entry it featured characters from other West End shows breaking in on the act. So, to accompany four Abba lookalikes, you had the Jersey Boys performing their version of the song, Miss Saigon’s helicopter, Ugandan villagers, Rachel from The Bodyguard and even a cavorting naked man from the chorus of Hair.

Waterloo with Jersey BoysI can’t quite recall the running order but it was about now that director Andrew Keates took to the stage, to give a very brave and honest speech about directing the play “As Is”, which concerns living with HIV, and how he hoped the play might encourage some people to get tested for the condition and if they are positive, to get the necessary treatment. The honesty was that he himself had not been tested, but took his own advice and discovered that he too was HIV positive. So it was a very personal plea for everyone to look after their own health by getting tested and seeking the medical help if they need it. Unfortunately he was interrupted by the most inappropriate heckle of the year, on a completely unrelated issue, which had us cringing in our seats. Even if they had a genuine grievance, there’s a time and a place – and that wasn’t it. But it didn’t dent the emotion and starkness of Mr Keates’ message.

SoniaAfter Beverley Knight drew the raffle (I lost again), it was time for our Eurovision guest act, Sonia, who proved she can still belt out a good hit. Not only did she perform her second placed 1993 entry, Better The Devil You Know, she also sang You’ll Never Stop Me From Wanting You. This moved us on to the voting, which was pretty tight, with the Book of Mormon in 3rd place and a tie for the top between Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. Apparently they don’t do Countback to identify an ultimate winner, so it’s not like real Eurovision. The performers from the winning shows all came back on stage and it was clear that they regarded their achievement with huge pride – and so they should.

Final scoreboardIt was a good 2.30am when it was all over. But of course, it wasn’t, as there was still the post-show party to be enjoyed. When we went in 2011, the party was held at a distant bar, some fifteen minutes trudging through the streets of Soho trying to find the place, and no one was quite sure where it was. Then we had to queue for entry, whilst celebs walked on through, which kind of rankled As I Had Paid For My Entry In Advance With My Ticket Price. Still, there were quite a lot of interesting people to gawp at and eavesdrop on – Sheridan Smith, Denise Welch, Denise van Outen, for example.

After show partyThis time, we had been told in advance that the party would also be held at the Dominion – we should make our way out of the theatre then back to the front where we would find the way in. There only seemed one way back in – through the theatre foyer, where heavies at the door were inspecting our wristbands. Ours were bronze, but everyone else’s appeared to be red. I also noted that the stairs to the Studio, where we had gone for the reception earlier, were now roped off. I thought no more of it, and we spent the next hour or so happily wandering around the foyers watching all these beautiful young people (cast members and their friends I guess) getting rat-arsed, and posing with the winning trophy. I did wonder though, where the other people were. Where was Graham Norton? And Caroline Quentin? I’d seen Aljaz and Janette from Strictly Come Dancing at the Drinks Reception, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen, until I noticed them emerging down some stairs and leaving at about 3.15am. The next day I saw a happy picture online of Graham Norton and Harriet Thorpe sharing champagne, and that’s when I realised that there are VIP parties and VIP parties, and that some VIPs are vipper than others!

I really hope this isn’t the last of the West End Eurovisions, as it’s a splendid tradition, everyone has a great time and it raises a lot of money for a very important cause. Now – the question is, shall we book to see West End Bares? Not been before and, let’s face it, it sounds fun!

Review – The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 2nd March 2013

Book of MormonYou know that thing when there is a huge crackle of anticipation in a theatre before it starts? You can find it in abundance at the moment at the Prince of Wales where The Book of Mormon is currently previewing. We saw the first Saturday matinee preview, so I guess there may still be some tweaks ahead, but to be honest I couldn’t see anything that needed tweaking.

Gavin CreelBut I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s the first time I’ve been to the Prince of Wales in many years and I was absolutely stunned at how beautifully it has been renovated. It was originally built in 1937 and has had a full Art Deco makeover. The bar at the back of the stalls is sensibly massive, and how pleasing it is to see it fully staffed with at least six hard-working people. The toilet provision is much more plentiful than you’d find in the average theatre. And the prices of drinks and merchandise were, I thought, remarkably reasonable. Every single member of staff that we talked to was jolly, friendly, polite and helpful. What a fantastically well-run theatre!

Jared GertnerThe Book of Mormon comes to London with a happy history already behind it, having collected no fewer than nine Tony awards in New York. Written by the irreverent team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, it’s not hard to predict the level of humour and zaniness that will fill the theatre. If anything, it’s far funnier than I expected, because it has none – well, very little – of the grotesqueness of South Park and the stereotypes depicted are actually rather endearing. It’s also less cruel than I had expected, and it has a rewardingly happy ending – all apart from the poor guy who gets shot halfway through. To say it’s irreverent is an understatement; and it is chock-full of subject matter that many people could find extremely offensive; but it is all done with a lightness of touch so that your only reaction is to laugh your socks off; and anything else that isn’t tied down. This really is intensive care funny. Imagine a cleaner-cut version of Jerry Springer The Opera and you’re somewhere in the right area. It goes without saying that it’s shamelessly non-PC; and it’s superbly staged throughout with great sets, lighting and costumes.

If you don’t want to know the story, skip this paragraph, although I’m only really giving you the introduction. Elders are getting paired off to go and spread the word of Mormon on doorsteps around the world. Our hero (or is he?) Elder Price is looking forward to partnering a regular guy just like himself and hitting the joyous streets of Orlando; instead he is paired off with our other hero (or is he?) Elder Cunningham, a needy nerdy fantasist with no mates, and they’re sent to Uganda. Things don’t go entirely to plan – there are no doorbells on the mud huts for one thing – and our heroes join the other Elders already in town in completely failing to make any conversions. But things turn around… and a bizarre success story awaits. I won’t tell you any more as I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Stephen AshfieldIf laughter is the best policy, making tickets available for this show on the National Health would be top of every party’s manifesto. Within ten seconds of curtain up I started laughing, and I barely stopped for the next two and a half hours – excepting the interval, where I stopped laughing long enough to enjoy a Pinot Grigio. After you’ve experienced the first number, “Hello!” you’ll find that you never, ever say the word “hello” again with the same intonation as before. There’s only one way to say it – bright eyed and bushy tailed and with the enthusiasm of a zealot door to door salesman. What the show does brilliantly is to lampoon the more ridiculous ideas of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (every religion has some ridiculous ideas) and make you the audience member step back and ask yourself, “looking at this objectively, could you really believe in all this?” It also shows how religions can get created and develop, and even how a new prophet can be realised. So actually, through the method of humour, it makes some pretty hard-hitting points about the nature of religion.

The cast are a complete joy from start to finish. Gavin Creel, who was great when we saw him in the revival of Hair a couple of years ago, plays Elder Price and he looks absolutely perfect for it – you can’t imagine anyone more bright, clean, and shiny for the role. Mr Creel has a great stage presence and a superb singing voice; he reminds me a little of what a showbiz Greg Rusedski would look like. He also takes Casey Nicholaw’s already amusing and quirky choreography and makes a terrific meal out of it – dancing incredibly athletically and show-offishly, slightly mad dad style, thereby making him look just a little more ridiculous. Elder Price is a bit of a louse in many respects, but because Mr Creel is so likeable on stage you still warm to the character despite his faults.

Alexia KhadimeLikeable in a completely different way is the hopeless Elder Cunningham, played hilariously by Jared Gertner, a little mop-head of neuroses who just wants to be loved, and is thrilled to be best-buddied with the charismatic Elder Price. With his super comic timing and fantastic facial expressions it’s a performance of comedy genius. At odds with his appearance, Mr Gertner is nevertheless a fantastic song-and-dance man which really shines through his performance. Together with Mr Creel their partnership is the classic “Odd Couple”, straight guy/comic guy and it works brilliantly.

Chris JarmanThere’s also a fantastic performance from Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley, head of the Ugandan mission. The missionaries already there have a simple way of coping with life’s difficulties and any internal torments they might have – they just switch it off, like a light, and there’s a brilliant song to illustrate it. Mr Ashfield’s portrayal of a guy occasionally drifting into his natural gayness and then switching it back off again is just hilarious, and he really shines in the Broadway-style big numbers. There’s also an incredible coup de theatre in “Turn it off” when the lights go out – I don’t know how they do it, but it takes your breath away. The huge roar of appreciation at curtain call for Mr Ashfield said it all.

Tyrone HuntleyAlexia Khadime plays Nabulungi, the village girl who decides there might be something in this Mormonism. She gives a stunning, tender performance, sings with heart and clarity and very nicely underplays the comedy of her role. She’s quite heart-melting too. Chris Jarman, who was excellent in last year’s Comedy of Errors, is terrific as the ogre General who rules the area with an iron fist and instruments of torture. His hilarious appearance in the final scene completely stops the show. And I really liked Tyrone Huntley, who was very funny in the UK tour of Sister Act, as the hopeless Doctor with an embarrassing medical problem. I’ll stop mentioning cast members now, but they were all absolutely first class.

This ought to run for years and years. If you’re not easily offended, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly. I do hope we get to see it again some time. One of the funniest shows I have ever seen – possibly the funniest. A must-see.