BWW Reviews: THE GREAT BRITISH MUSICALS - IN CONCERT, St James Theatre, July 5 2014
Why is the history of the British Musical so neglected? Where are the shelves full of volumes by learned authors, the BBC Four six-part documentary series, the half-hour montages at the Royal Variety Show? What is there to apologise for?
Nothing, of course, and much, very much, to celebrate, as Ross Leadbeater's The Great British Musicals - In Concert (presented in association with St. James Theatre Productions) so gloriously proves. Having assembled The Novello Singers from amongst the West End's finest performers and with Simon Callow (alternating with Nicholas Parsons) linking the songs with some keenly observed context, Leadbeater dips into the vast treasure trove of our musical theatre and whisks us from Penzance all the way to Argentina and back.
With everyone dressed in elegant formal black and white, perched on stools on a bare stage, a little stiffness in presentation might have been feared - but that was dispelled immediately by the wit of both the songs and the staging, with Gilbert and Sullivan getting things off to a fine, topsy-turvy start. From there, it's on to selections from the well-known, none more so than Noel Coward, and the less well-known (at least these days) Lionel Monckton and Vivien Ellis. The standout is the poignant "Keep The Home Fires Burning", 100 years on from its adoption as an unofficial national anthem, the song written by a 21 year-old Welsh lad - Ivor Novello.
In the second half - after a joyous Flash Bang Wallop! - the ensemble is joined by West End stars Jon Robyns and Louise Dearman. Singing close up in this beautifully appointed venue and with minimal amplification (what a pleasure to report that!) Robyns gives us a lovely "Pure Imagination", backing it up with an understated "If I Ruled The World". Dearman leads a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber's work, with plenty of Radio Two favourites belted out (though the lyrics feel even more clunky than usual after what has gone before). There's time for a madcap "Timewarp" before, all too soon, rapturous applause rings round the auditorium and we're done.
Two hours flies by, buoyed by the roll call of musical geniuses that have entertained generations of theatregoers whether paying half a sixpence in the gods or rattling their jewellery in the Royal Box. And there's material out there sufficient for another two-hour show - hell, there's material enough for another ten two-hour shows. So let's see some more, Mr Leadbeater!