The Great British Musicals – In Concert at the St James
A starlit backdrop, a baby grand bathed in blue light, and microphones slung from the ceiling establish the mood of old showbiz glamour even before the performers take the stage. What follows is a journey through musical theatre from WW1-era Britain up until the present, with an emphasis on jaunty operetta and nostalgic show tunes.
This is The Great British Musicals – In Concert, presented by Ross Leadbeater who remains on the grand throughout, accompanying the Novello Singers – five boys and five girls classically trained and dressed in black tie – as they sing and dance their way through the playlist. Narration comes from lovable nonagenarian Nicholas Parson, veteran of the stage and host of Radio 4’s Just a Minute.
Comical patter songs like Lionel Monckton’s Charming Weather brim with theatrical facial expressions and Flash Bang Wallop is executed with lively slapstick. The pace slows with Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs, a delicate harmony between two of the girls that yearns for past springs. Keep The Home Fires Burning, a WW1 tribute, is poignant yet rousing in that British, “keep your chin up” way. The balanced male to female ratio suits the old-fashioned stereotypes of masculinity and femininity prevalent in so many of the older songs; they split into boy/girl couples, the ladies with a dainty leg flicked up behind them. There’s a chaste naivety to many of the songs about young sweethearts. Some quaint lyrics elicit audience laughs: (man: “I’ll read a book”, woman: “while I cook”). As Act Two brings us to more recent decades, the Novello Singers throw those iconic dance moves against gunge-green floodlighting for The Time Warp. Special guests, West End’s Louise Dearman and Jon Robyns, bring the show to a peak with a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.
The properness of the Novello Singers’ smiles and impeccable choreography is offset by Parson’s cheeky anecdotes and bumbling self-mockery. Dressed in a blue velvet smoking jacket (from his time in West End’s The Rocky Horror Show), he garners delighted laughter throughout. He reads musical tidbits from a stand but steps away from it to confide in us his asides: stories about meeting Noel Coward, drawn from his many years’ experience of tripping the boards.
Although a rousing and sweetly nostalgic show, the surplus warbling and schmaltziness may not be to everybody’s taste. Parson’s comic charisma and the glamour of a bygone era, however, are enough to delight most.
The Great British Musicals – In Concert is at St James Theatre until 5th July 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the original version of Flash Bang Wallop from Half A Sixpence here.