United Kingdom The Great British Musicals, The Novello Singers, with soloists Louise Dearman and Jon Robyns, Hosted by Nicholas Parsons and Simon Callow (Saturday matinee only) with Ross Leadbeater (piano), St. James’s Theatre, London, 4-5.7.2014 (IL)
The Novello Singers include West End performers Rhidian Marc (Les Miserables), Annatt Bass (The Phantom of the Opera), Leigh Rhiannon Coggins (Pirates of Penzance), James Charlton (The Light Princess), Mira Ormala (Love Never Dies), Matthew Crowe (South Pacific), Jonathan Broad (West End Men), Lydia Jenkins (Iolanthe), Victoria Humphreys (The Bakewell Bakeoff), and Ben Irish (HMS Pinafore)]
Three cheers for Ross Leadbeater and his concept The Great British Musicals – a welcome initiative to keep alive the spirit of so many older, lovelier more melodic songs from shamefully neglected and/or forgotten shows and, hopefully, to introduce them to younger audiences.
The Novello Singers transported us back to the early years of the 20th century and before with their enthusiastic and animated renderings supported by Ross Leadbeater’s expressive but non-condescending piano accompaniments. Each turn was appreciatively and sometimes quite movingly introduced by Simon Callow at the Saturday matinee performance that this reviewer attended. (Nicholas Parsons introduced the two evening performances.) The singers sat in rows at the back of the stage venturing forward to sing all together, or in duets or singly. On each occasion the songs were delivered to dance steps or marches or other expressively choreographed movements with choreography and movements directed by Philip Joel. The event took place in the new St James’s Theatre near London’s Buckingham Palace, which is very well designed with good acoustics and steep raking so that every seat has a very good uninterrupted view of the small stage.
After Gilbert and Sullivan’s music for The Pirates of Penzance, which is not strictly a musical, the show continued with two amusing Lionel Monckton songs from the first British musical comedy The Arcadians: ‘Charming Weather’ in which a young couple complain about their tryst being constantly interrupted by the arrival of friends and ‘All Down Piccadilly’ with such saucy lines like: “All down Piccadilly, dilly, dilly, dilly,Round by the Park, You’ll see ladies running after little Willie, Till it gets dark.” Vivien Ellis collaborated in producing numerous musical shows between 1925 and 1958 – especially through the 1930s. He is best remembered today for his music for the long-running and sometimes revived Paul Temple radio detective series that used Ellis’s Coronation Scot as its signature tune and for his song, ‘Spread a Little Happiness’ which was rendered here with Noel Gay’s ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ most famously known in George Formby’s version.
Ivor Novello’s earliest success, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ celebrated those who kept the country going while their menfolk were battling through the Great War. It was the first of a number of Novello hits performed by The Novello Singers which included the enchanting ‘My Dearest Dear’ from The Dancing Nights, the comic song, ‘Her Mother Came Too’ (quite recently heard in the film Gosford Park) and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again’ from Novello’s Perchance to Dream. Written as World War II was ending, this haunting song must have brought a lump to the throats of those parted by the conflict.
Thinking of Ivor Novello (1893 – 1951) brings to mind his near contemporary and great rival, Noel Coward (1899 – 1977). Noel was represented by his ‘Any Little Fish’ and the song included in the show’s finale, ‘The Party’s Over Now’ from Words and Music (1932).
On either side of the interval the audience enjoyed the bright and breezy and ever-youthful music of Sandy Wilson and Julian Slade. Wilson’s The Boy Friend (which introduced Julie Andrews to the public) had so many cheery hits including the songs we heard – ‘I Could Be Happy With You’, ‘A Room in Bloomsbury’ and of course the title song. From Julian Slade’s Salad Days, which ran for nearly 2,300 performances, there was ‘Oh, Look at Me’, ‘The Time of My Life,’ ‘It’s Easy to Sing’ and, as a concluding item of the whole show, ‘We Said We’d Never Look Back’.
Most of the second half was taken up by songs from more recent musicals beginning with Leslie Bricusse’s ‘If I ruled the World’ from Pickwick and from Bricusse’s and Anthony Newley’s ‘What Kind of Fool Am I’ from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off . Both songs were sung with eloquence and passion by guest star Jon Robyns who was joined by the other guest star, the lovely Louise Dearman to sing hit songs from so many Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. In between there was ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ from the Tommy Steele vehicle Half a Sixpence, the poignant ‘Soliloquy’ from Robert and Elizabeth based on The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and ‘The Time Warp’ from The Rocky Horror Show.
If I seem to have passed quickly over the content of the second half of this concert it reflects the taste of this 78-year old reviewer who reveres the older more tuneful musicals rather than the blander (to my ears anyway) newer offerings. Looking at this matinee audience as a whole, the majority were ‘grey hairs’ – which may only go to prove how important it is to preserve the memory of the works of Novello, Coward, Slade and Wilson etc. for future generations, especially those folk under 60 who have been nurtured on an endless diet of Pop music and may never have even heard of them!