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.