Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
In the year-and-a-bit of lockdown (give or take the occasional forays into lifted restrictions) a number of performers took to social media platforms as an outlet for their performance skills.
We may be weeks away from the full lifting of restrictions, or not, depending on whether the Delta variation of Covid-19 can be kept under control. That notwithstanding, a night dedicated to in-person celebration of virtual entertainers feels apposite.
Hosted by TV presenter Kerry Boyne and actor and comedian Sooz Kempner, the acts selected for inclusion range from dancers and singers to comedians and podcast hosts.
First out of the gate, Austyn Farrell recreates some of the dance sequences he performed in his street during lockdown, including a frenetic Tina Turner impression but kicking off with a rambunctious performance of From Now On from The Greatest Showman. The number’s repeated chorus of “We will come back home”, coupled with the distinctive choreography created for the movie by Ashley Wallen, has made the song an unofficial anthem for musical theatre performers dreaming of returning to the stage, so it is an apt choice for an opening number here.
Following up, comedian Naomi Cooper delivers a blisteringly funny character stand-up in the form of Philippa, the ultimate in middle class mums who, during lockdown, nearly hospitalised her husband by practising cupping on him with some Le Creuset ramekins (“I was worried… but I washed them and they’re fine.”)
Two strong opening acts place pressure on the third to keep up the pace, which is an awful lot to bear on eight-year-old shoulders. Rufus Bateman, who learned to tap dance during lockdown under the tutelage of his mother, choreographer and dance teacher Lizzie Gee, shows no sign of any such pressure in a charmingly sweet mother-and-son routine.
A sit-down discussion with podcast hosts Mufseen Miah and Spencer Cooper about Queer Talk, one of the few podcasts launched during lockdown to have gone from strength to strength, provides a diverting change of pace, allowing the next act to make a significantly greater impact.
Rob Madge enters with a number from Acorn Antiques: the Musical, which makes for a pleasant change from most performers’ cabaret repertoire. After he rips his Mrs Overall-style tabard off to reveal an even smaller dress made of tinsel and little else, a couple of Sondheim pastiches – Not Getting Married and I’m Still Here – might appear to be on more conventional ground, but with lyrics adapted to coruscate the government’s handling of the pandemic and Madge’s charismatic style, they form a rousing end to Act I.
The second act resumes with Kempner, who among her many talents amused her Twitter followers with impressions of Liza Minnelli reading Donald Trump’s stream of consciousness speeches verbatim, showing another side to her impressionism. Her spoken version of Minnelli may be a winsomely grotesque caricature that fuses Liza with Betty Boop, but musically it’s a much more serious, accurate portrayal that shows the breadth of Kempner’s talent.
Comedy sketch performer Joe Carter then sits down for an interview with Boyne, in what ends up as the most disappointing segment of the evening. Boyne’s softball questions elicit nothing of interest, and an extended discussion as to whether Carter’s TikTok followers number 1.6 million or 1.7 million is just tedious.
Much improved is Irish comedian Seán Burke, whose routine touches on lockdown topics but branches out further afield. His easygoing delivery and knack with storytelling mark him out as a comic who deserves many live audiences in the future.
A third comedian in a row proves a little too much for the format of the evening to bear, especially when Rosie Holt provides another character study that pales in comparison to Naomi Cooper’s earlier in the evening. Holt’s character is referred to only as ‘The Woman’, which gives some indication to the level of imagination at work here in the portrayal of a Brexit-loving, flag-waving Tory that probably works best in short segments online than it does as a full routine.
When the finale arrives, there is only one performer that such a night could have chosen. When lockdown forced Oscar Conlon-Morrey and the rest of his Only Fools and Horses: the Musical castmates to head home, a video of a drunken Conlon-Morrey belting Sondheim on the Tube went mega-viral, and was followed by a series of hilarious songs and sketches recorded from home.
Conlon-Morrey dips into his capacious dressing-up box for a gloriously madcap recap of his greatest hits. It is somewhat unfortunate that these are replayed on a big screen behind him as he delivers live versions from the stage. It takes a big man to pull focus from Conlon-Morrey, and it feels curiously appropriate that the only person who could do so is Conlon-Morrey himself.
Still, it does allow the show to end on the sight of a video wall full of West End performers singing, “We’ll be back,” accompanying Conlon-Morrey as he pastiches King George from Hamilton.
That’s a promise that feels earned, regardless of whether or not theatre can fully reopen on schedule.
Reviewed on 9 June 2021