Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Russell Watson is quite unique as a singer. Leaving school without qualifications, he quickly gained a factory job, wife and child and supplemented his earnings singing pop covers on the northern club circuit. Almost by chance, and despite lacking any classical training, he discovered an affinity with classical arias when it was suggested he sing ‘Nessun Dorma’. He became perhaps the first opera/pop crossover act, and is still one of the very few singers equally comfortable singing rock anthems, show tunes and, of course, classical arias.
Although not always critically acclaimed, he was to release successful albums, starting with The Voice in 2001. His health problems, to which he alludes, but in which he does not wallow in his onstage chat, are well known: surgery to remove a pituitary tumour in 2006 and then a recurrence in 2007, when his life was in danger. Watson overcame these, even saying that his voice improved further after surgery. However, he felt he was in a rut when a chance meeting with Schönberg and Boublil, the masterminds behind Les Miserables, led to his being offered the chance to add their songs to his repertoire. On telling them his story, they agreed, most unusually, to write material especially for him, which can be heard on his latest album, Only One Man, which tells his story through song. Very personal, this current tour includes ‘Without You’, Watson’s tribute to his fans, the Russellers, and ‘My Love and I’, sung as an encore and clearly with great meaning to Watson, who is shortly due to remarry.
Fans of Watson’s are not disappointed by his choice of songs. Alongside old favourites like ‘Nessun Dorma’, ‘Va Pensiero’, the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, there is a medley from Les Miserables, including ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, to a beautifully simple guitar arrangement with Chris Allard, and the moving, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’. The importance of family to Watson is clear as he sings ‘You Are So Beautiful to a backdrop of family photographs and dedicated to his daughter, Hannah, in the audience at Symphony Hall. The first half closes with a powerful Rendering of ‘Barcelona’.
At intervals during the evening, the backing orchestra, Arts Symphonique, with backing singers, Arts Voices, takes centre stage as The Voice takes a break. In the first half, the audience is treated to a well orchestrated medley from Les Miserables prior to Russell.s pieces; in the second, there’s a space medley, including such iconic themes as those from Star Trek, Dr Who and ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, used in 2001: A Space Odyssey’.
After the interval, the mix continues, with an appearance from guest, Jonathan Antoine. Many will be unfamiliar with the name, but as soon as he steps on to the stage, he is instantly recognisable as half of Jonathan and Charlotte, Britain’s Got Talent runners up in 2012. This is one of Antoine’s first forays into a solo career following their split in February after each was offered a solo record deal. Antoine, despite a well publicised battle with depression, appears more relaxed and sings powerfully, his voice harmoniously joining Watson’s in ‘Panis Angelicus’ and ‘Santa Lucia’. Clearly one to watch.
Watson and Antoine are clearly at ease with one another and their on stage relationship is good to see. Indeed, Watson has never just been a singer: his easy manner with the audience and the invitation into his world makes one feel he’s just like anyone else, someone you could enjoy a pint in the pub with. He is personable and often speaks from the heart without apology. After the rousing ‘Nessun Dorma, for example, her speaks of his own feelings about returning soldiers by way of introduction of his new charity single, ‘The Homeground Anthem’.
Watson speaks in the programme of wanting to get off the treadmill of classical and rock covers and there is material new to his repertoire here, most notably from his new album. This is undoubtedly crowd pleasing, as is clear from the ecstatic reception each old favourite elicits form the audience, but one can’t help but think he could have pushed the envelope a little further. There is talk within the programme of a later, more theatrical piece to be based heavily around the new album to tell Watson’s life story, which should be interesting indeed.
Watson has it all: a voice that is equally at home with rock classics, crooning and opera; a stupendous on-stage presence and charm; and heartfelt performances. But one can’t help but wonder just how powerful and personal that promised new show might be, pushing his boundaries even further.
Reviewed on: 24th March, on tour until 15th April