Review – West End Bares presents Excalibare, Novello Theatre, 25th September 2016

ExcalibareFor many years I’ve been watching comments about all the fun and frolics that take place at the annual West End Bares shindig and I’ve often wondered whether this might be something that Mrs Chrisparkle and I should support. We were firm friends of the old West End Eurovision shows but they seemed to have stopped those now – which is an enormous shame. However, West End Bares is a different take on a similar trick – having the casts of several West End musicals each rehearse their own musical extravaganza and then put it on a Sunday stage to raise money for the MAD Trust, which raises funds for HIV and AIDS projects that build awareness and provide care, support and education in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa. In previous years – rather like the London Eurovision Preview Party – West End Bares has been held at London’s glamorous Café de Paris. There’s no doubt it’s a fun venue; but for these types of shows, unless you queue early, run in and hold your spot and don’t move for the next five hours, the stage sightlines are appalling. So when I found out that this year’s WEB would be held at a proper theatre, I decided we simply had to go.

Melanie Tranter, Chair of the MAD TrustUnlike West End Eurovision, there’s no element of competition between the entries; nor is there a guest panel; and they’re not trying to impersonate or emulate a real Eurovision song. However, there’s a considerable amount of pride and friendly rivalry in the individual “numbers” that each big musical contributes to the West End Bares line-up. Top stars appear; world class choreographers create each scene; and a tremendous amount of imagination goes into the costumes. But, as I am sure you’ve realised, gentle reader, the primary aim of each of these scenes is for their performers to get as much kit off as they dare, in a nod in the general direction of the Gods of Burlesque. To be fair, the end results – normally a tableau with anyone who got naked facing away from the stage – are more cheeky and suggestive than actually that revealing. As Cupid Stunt would have said, it’s all done in the best possible taste. Everyone’s giving his or her time for free – not only the performers but the theatre staff and the tech people too – so the production successfully harnesses an awful lot of goodwill and hard work into making the show as much fun as possible. And of course, there are two shows (7:00 and 9:30pm), which raises the possibility of doubling the amount of money donated to the charity. Because we’re never ones to be half-hearted about this kind of thing, we went for the bedtime show. The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to say you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

David GrewcockOur host was Graham Norton, who introduced and ended the show, and popped in occasionally for a few words here and there. Additional hosting came from Gina Beck and Ben Freeman (which resulted in Ben losing his shirt) and Helen Lederer and Ramin Karimloo (which resulted in Ramin losing his shirt. Are you sensing a thread here?) Indeed, it’s definitely the case that there’s more… expectation, shall we say? that the guys will get more naked than the girls. At one point, Graham Norton asked if there were any straight men in the audience, with the follow up line that they’ll have considered it a night wasted – cue lots of laughter. I know it was just a joke, but in all seriousness, it’s perhaps a shame that the naughtiness isn’t more evenly spread between the sexes. When you’re promoting awareness of HIV it’s a really foolish idea to alienate any sector of the community, e.g. straight men, as everyone’s equally able to become HIV positive, regardless of gender or sexuality.

David BedellaIt would be churlish of me to go through all ten scenes and pick out which were the best and which weren’t, when everyone has given so freely of their time and expertise. However, both Mrs C and I agreed that the first number – the eponymous Excalibare, choreographed by Freddie Huddlestone – was absolutely superb. It was certainly helped by having David Bedella, one of my favourite actors, as part of the troupe. Later on, it emerged it was Mr Bedella’s birthday and we all gave him a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You”, whilst two men in scanties offered him a birthday cake; although the mischievous birthday boy seemed more interested in eating the contents of one of the chefs’ pants than his patisserie. But I digress. Everyone did a great job, in all the numbers, throughout the evening. In addition to all the dance routines, there was a stunning rendition of Sondheim’s Losing My Mind by Michelle Visage – forgive me but I had to Google who she is, but given her thunderous reception, we were obviously the only people in the whole theatre not to know.

£10 noteOne of the unique aspects to the show is the finale – the Rotation. This is where the cast come out into all parts of the auditorium and you have to get your MAD money out – you’d previously exchanged it for cash from the ushers – and basically you stuff the notes into the remaining clothes of whichever performer comes nearby. Thus you have notes stuffed into bra straps, cleavages, briefs, and so on. We were actually sitting very close to the steps that led up to the stage so when all the performers came down into the auditorium it was a rather overwhelming sudden onslaught of flesh! Heaven knows what happened at the first show, but Graham Norton said there had been a bit of “a scene”, so his advice on how to go about this delicate business was just: “don’t be vile”. I think we all knew what that meant.

RotationAfter a couple of tentative stuffings, Mrs C just found the whole process too embarrassing and handed over her wad of MAD money to me, so I had double the amount to distribute. In the end, there’s absolutely no point looking out for any particular performers that you wanted to endorse in this faux-financial way; anyone who wandered by I just gently tweaked open their pants and stuffed a note in. When I’d finally got rid of all my notes, one guy wandered up and looked expectantly at me – I simply had to show my empty hands and mouth the words “none left”, like when I used to tell the dog there was nothing more for him to eat – and I must say the guy looked quite hurt. The whole thing was a very weird experience, as it felt both strangely intrusive yet also strangely supportive, because by getting up close and personal you’re kind of appreciating everything that they’ve done in the show. That said, I’ve certainly never been that close to a man’s pants before, especially with the said man still in them.

Getting readyAll in all, it ran a little under an hour and a half and must have raised tens of thousands of pounds for the charity. Congratulations to everyone for all your talent, commitment and daring! A packed Novello theatre was very appreciative.

On the throneP. S. Still in sheep as a lamb mode, we also got our names on the After Show Party list – by which I mean we paid extra. The party was at 100 Wardour Street, a really smart and elegant club with very comfortable seating areas (which we enjoyed) as well as a great dance area and nifty little stage, from where La Voix did some cabaret – and she was in fine voice. We’d been to the After Show Parties for West End Eurovision before but I have to say this one had by far the best vibe. There were even nibbles out on the tables – and more food got sent around from the kitchens as the night progressed. Also, no problem getting our first drink – two glasses of very decent Shiraz for £6.50 each which I thought was pretty good going. However, by the time we wanted a top-up, the bar was heaving. It took me 25 minutes from joining the back of the queue to get our drinks and back to our table. For a while I was lingering at the bar being ignored by the bar staff – must have been wearing my Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak again – until a charming young lady pointed out to the barman that I was, indeed, next. To that young lady I say thank you! Your moral contribution to Help The Aged was most welcome. 100 Wardour Street

P. P. S. £3 for the programmes. Just £3!! And they’re big and glossy and full of pictures. They could easily have doubled that price and raised much more for the charity.

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!