Giving some attention to light music in cynical times, The Great British Musicals in Concert are sessions in which this country’s musical theatre yield is put in historical perspective, highlighting what have been hits emerging from the scene through the ages. Performed by The Novello Singers (named after the great composer), the songs are given new breath by highly capable West End actors and put into context by a narrator – a genial Simon Callow in the matineé I attended. He leads the audience through the many golden ages that British light entertainment has lived through, and it is astonishing to witness how much material has pretty much been forgotten about. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were preceded by decades of sexy and fun tunes that more often than not aimed to take the attention away from whatever worrying was happening on the news.
There are, however, exceptions to this, most prominently in the shape of songs like the hundred-year-old ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ (Ivor Novello), which evokes the uncertainty in the lives of those left behind and is delivered with conviction by the ensemble. But most of it is light and airy – silly, sometimes – which makes it all too easy to take the notes and arrangements for granted. Musical theatre has very specific conditions, of course, not least the emphasis on diction and projection while remaining in the right key. It is not as easy as it may look.
The staging of the concert is fairly informal, while some choreography stands out: ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ from Half A Sixpence with Tommy Steele (here performed by Rhidian Marc) in particular is a display of impressive footwork and timing. Ross Leadbeater as artistic director has brought it all together and accompanies on piano – the only instrument used.
There are two guest stars – Louise Dearman and Jon Robyns – who take turns in belting out well-known hits from the likes of Evita and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All in all, the selection of songs from early Gilbert and Sullivan to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (a delightful twist in a show packed with evening suits and general sophistication) and a Lloyd Webber medley is effective and really does give a strong and entertaining overview of British musicals over the past century.
Callow’s narration helps her too, as the eminence grise of the London stage throws in facts and anecdotes amongst the strong performances (in the other two shows, his place was taken by Nicholas Parsons). We learn about attitudes to musical theatre and how the relationship of the art form with everyday reality has evolved.
This celebration of British (not American!) musical hits makes for pleasant viewing and listening, and the hope is that it will grow into something bigger and broader – that is my hope, too.
The Great British Musicals in Concert played at St. James Theatre. For more information, see the St. James Theatre website.