BWW Review: WEST END LIVE, Trafalgar Square
Once again, West End Live drew huge crowds to Trafalgar Square at the weekend to enjoy free performances from London's biggest musicals. The stage was set up at the foot of Nelson's Column, with stands in front of the National Gallery and stalls all around the Square.
The queues have become somewhat notorious at this annual event, and people have taken to various theatre forums to suggest it needs a bigger venue, but, for now, the backdrop is fantastic. That was helped by the glorious sunshine over the weekend.
The necessity to wait for hours to be guaranteed a spot means the event draws the hardcore musical theatre fans, who are willing to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning to get in line. This feeds into the excitement and the amount the crowd are invested in each performance, creating an electric atmosphere.
One of the highlights of the day was everyone joining in with "You Will Be Found" from Dear Evan Hansen, which was only played as part of an advert but really got everyone going before the live music even started.
Over 40 shows performed across the event, from old favourites and to new offerings to shows that won't be hitting the stage until later in the year.
The best of London's talent was on show, but certain performers still managed to stand out. Matt Croke - AKA current star of Aladdin - clearly thrived off the reception from the crowd. Waitress's David Hunter styled out a microphone malfunction brilliantly, in a way that showed an easy chemistry between him and co-star Lucie Jones. Impressive when you consider she is a new addition to the show's cast.
Louise Dearman did a great job of hosting and an even better job of singing. She performed contemporary favourites from The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born, being joined on stage by Ricardo Afonso from Jesus Christ Superstar for "Shallow".
John Owen-Jones also shone as a host, filling the square with his charisma. Unfortunately, their radio presenter counterparts don't quite hold up against their ability to own a stage, which is to be expected as the performers are presumably more in their comfort zone than the presenters.
After watching a whole host of shows, the ones which stood out for me were the fun-loving Mamma Mia! cast, the talented performers from Waitress, and the exciting tease of & Juliet, coming to London later this year after a run in Manchester.
Fiddler on the Roof was brilliantly staged, with two numbers from the show being fully re-created. Tina also has a certain je ne sais quoi, and, following its first performance at West End Live last year, Six was a real crowd-pleaser. It seemed to be one of the main shows people came out to see this year.
This progression makes it all the more exciting to see new offerings like Adrian Mole, The View Upstairs and & Juliet, with the latter two being my tips for the next big thing. I'm already & Juliet's biggest fan.
Thriller seemed to go on for too long, performing more songs than the other shows despite being in a middle ground between new show and classic. They lost the crowd slightly with people half-heartedly singing along rather than getting really involved.
The sign language interpreters have become a staple of West End Live, with the songs being performed in BSL. Sue MacLaine and Marco Nardi took it in turns on the stage left podium, with Sue covering a lot of the newer numbers.
It's a similar set-up to having a signer in the corner of a television screen, but as they are singing in sign language, they are getting lost in the music and seem to be having a great time.
This is just one example of the inclusivity demonstrated by the event. There is also provision for people with accessibility needs, which I did not witness this year but it was certainly very well managed in 2018. It's also a great celebration of diversity, with different ages, races, genders and sexualities all coming together to share a common passion.
One feature which has fallen flat the past two years has been Katie Cam, with groans echoing through the crowd every time the presenters on stage announce they're passing over to their roving reporter. I think it's time to explore new ways to fill the time between sets.
In a similar vein, the transitions into performances where there was a band on stage were slow and clunky. A recorded track works best in this scenario.
The lighting seemed a little defunct in the bright daylight. It was hard to tell what it was adding to the performance, but maybe it wouldn't have been the same without the colour it added.
For the most part, the sound came off without a hitch and the music could be heard from across the Square without being uncomfortable for people near speakers.
For West End Live veterans, some of the sets seem a little samey - Aladdin and Thriller both felt like a re-creation of last year's showing, as did Phantom of the Opera. There are enough great songs in these shows that they could mix up their choices for the people coming back year on year, while still putting on a great show for first-timers.
The open-air dynamic causes a drastic shift in atmosphere from seeing the shows in the theatre. The main negative aspect of this is the fact people can use their phones to film. While it wasn't particularly obstructing sightlines, and it's great to have recordings of these songs, the crowd fell a bit flat during the big numbers that everyone wanted to film. It broke the spell a little bit. This was most noticeable during Phantom and Les Miserables.
However, the freedom from theatre etiquette also means that the fans are free to sing along to their heart's content. It's a great experience to be part of a group, all joining their favourite performers in singing songs they love. "She Used to be Mine" from Waitress and Six were both great examples of this. "Defying Gravity" was also fun to join in with.
And for the performers who turn up in full costume, it's great to see those in daylight. The intricacies of the design comes across completely differently than under stage lighting. Elphaba and Glinda's dresses from Wicked, Christine's outfit for Phantom and costumes for Six all stood out.
The event still draws the crowds for a reason. It's well organised, in a great location, and features most of the city's biggest shows. It's great to be able to experience the best of London's theatre offering all in one place. The fact it's all free is a bonus!
West End Live was held in Trafalgar Square on 22-23 June
Photo credit: Antoine Hamonic