Standing room only at the battle of Trafalgar Square: West End Live, Sunday 19th June 2011

Where would you find two lions, a baboon, a tin man, a dog, a scarecrow and Michael Jackson?  No, not Neverland!  Trafalgar square of course, at this year’s West End Live.  Having somehow missed the previous six years of this event, we decided to right this wrong and brave the square for some free theatre and a snapshot view of how the West End Musical is doing. 

The show was presented with annoying cheerfulness by Matt Wilkinson and Lisa Vickery, who kept asking if we were having a good time – we put this down to insecurity, as deep down they must have known we would be as soon as they left the stage.

First up were Stomp, who have managed to bring the childish pleasure of kicking dustbins into early adulthood, with riveting effect.  It’s easy to see why their brand of percussion, using every kind of object imaginable, has spread throughout the world.

Next up were Polka Theatre making their West End Live debut with the work of Quentin Blake.  Ten out of ten for enthusiasm and talent, although we suspect we were the wrong age demographic for the story of Mr Magnolia with his single boot (click here for a sample – it’s quite catchy!). 

Then we have the Wizard of Oz.  What can we say that we haven’t said already? It did give us a chance to see whether we had been too unkind in our assessment of Danielle Hope in the previews.  We haven’t – after three months in the show she still doesn’t command the stage, despite having a pleasant enough voice.  Even the usually dependable Edward Baker Duly seemed a little rusty (!)

At this point Matt and Lisa tried to whip up the crowd with some ill conceived audience participation, including arm flailing and a shout off between the sexes.  They obviously don’t know the difference between Musical Theatre and pantomime.

And they didn’t really need to bother, because as soon as the cast of Thriller Live came on stage the crowd perked up even though it was starting to rain.  We’ve tended to be a bit sceptical about jukebox musicals, but the sheer energy, enthusiasm and talent of the cast had us clapping along and tapping our feet with the best of them.  In a short space of time we were whisked through the highlights of Michael Jackson’s career from ABC to Smooth Criminal – it’s a reflection of Jackson’s genius that it apparently takes a cast of thousands to replicate what he did.  It’s hard to pick anyone out in such an exceptional cast, but Shanay Holmes and Britt Gilbert deserve a special mention.

They were followed by another Musical Theatre institution, Disney’s The Lion King (to give it its correct title).  This was a real class act – not many people can carry off those costumes, but Andile Gumbi as Simba and Brown Lindiwe Mkhize as Rafiki gave a storming rendition of ‘Endless Night’ and ‘He Lives in You’ and left us wanting more.

Shrek the Musical was given a rather strange introduction, as we were informed of the star names, which might have led us to expect appearances from Nigel Lindsay and Amanda Holden.  Instead, we had Richard Blackwood in jeans with the incredible Landi Oshinowo, giving a virtuoso vocal performance as his Lady Dragon, which we suspect will not be matched by any of the stars.  Not that we’re shallow, but we were disappointed that none of the cast were in costume.  Perhaps that’s why Edward Baker Duly seemed a bit grumpy earlier – his tin man costume must take ages.

Unable to appear in person, we had the obligatory video greeting from Justin lee Collins, who will join the cast ‘Rock of Ages’ – with his effortless charm he gave us a masterclass in how to present….maybe he knew what we were going through.  When the cast came on there seemed a disproportionate amount of interest from the crowd, until we realised that Shane Warne from the X factor was on stage.  Not a bad performance if you like classic 80s rock.

At this point a strange ripple ran through the crowd – we looked around and could feel people closing in, and a sudden determination to reach the front, with a proliferation of young girls being hoisted onto Dad’s shoulders.  Yes, it’s the Mamma Mia effect.  There is something about the music of Abba which exerts a strange magnetic effect, but who could complain, when the cast includes once again the delightful and de-lovely Sally Ann Triplett.  A fitting time we felt to call it a day.

So what conclusions can we reach from this smorgasbord of Musical treats?  To return to a topic which we have ranted about before, it was interesting to see how few of these talented performers were name checked.  Danielle Hope got a mention of course (even if wrongly renamed Daniella), along with three of the absent stars of Shrek.  If Richard Blackwood hadn’t bigged up Landi Oshinowo in the post-performance interview (Sir, you are a gentleman!) we wouldn’t have known who she was.  So, if we have got any names wrong, please correct us – we were having to do a bit of guesswork.

We noted that Mastercard continue their quest for West End domination, with the somewhat vague yet ominous phrase ‘Proud sponsor of London Theatre’.  At least the TKTS booth is still accepting Visa.  Some very plush brochures were given out on the day, but it’s not exactly clear what other part they are playing.  We did see that they are up to their old tricks with a prize draw which on closer inspection is only open to Mastercard holders.  Well, at least they didn’t check our wallets on our way in to the square.

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