West End Eurovision – Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Director: Gareth Hulance

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

It has been four years since representatives from various West End musicals last got together to fundraise for HIV charity TheatreMAD with West End Eurovision.

The idea is fairly straightforward: cast members from each show take a previous Eurovision finalist’s song and put their own spin on it. A trio of celebrity judges comment after each performance, eventually awarding their own prize to the most creative act. The public votes for performers’ “video idents”, short segments which have been on YouTube for a month and which are played as each ensemble gets into position.

Then comes the final vote: each production voting, Eurovision-style, for themselves, awarding their douze pointsin turn as the leaderboard updates. Unlike the real Eurovision Song Contest, though, it’s all carried off with a pace that means that the whole show is shorter than the televised competition’s scoring rounds.

That is due in part to restricting the number of shows competing to just eight – the fewest number of West End Eurovision competitors since 2009. And while the cast of Hamiltonstart strongly, with a rendition of 2014 Denmark entry Cliché Love Song that is mashed up with their show’s own The Schuyler Sisters, it is pleasant enough but no more. One almost wonders whether, if this is all West End Eurovisionhas to offer, its revival was worth it.

Emcee Richard Gauntlett helps keep up the pace, as does his banter with the three guest judges. Both Arlene Phillips and John Partridge have experience of performing similar roles on TV talent shows (Strictly Come Dancingfor her, Over the Rainbowfor him) so it is faintly disappointing that their responses are so anodyne. In a different league is comedian Tom Allen, who capitalises on his lack of theatrical insider knowledge to always pronounce something of interest after each performance.

A couple of shows’ choices, both of song and creative performance, veers towards the traditional Eurovision style of presentation. In particular, Kinky Boots’ choice of Warrior, Georgia’s 2015 entry, fits in with the musical’s message of acceptance and defiance, while Mamma Mia!seems to step away from its everyday life of Abba-infused camp with a rendition of Undo (Sweden, 2014) that is rather too serious.

At the other end of the scale, the cast of Young Frankensteinperform a rendition of Sweden’s 1999 entry Take Me To Your Heaven with a tongue-in-cheek rendition that seeks to cast show’s matriarch Lesley Joseph in the role of God, while Aladdin’s performance of the Danish 2007 entry Drama Queen relies on muscular men in leather harnesses and an oversized drag queen – performance staples that go down well amongst an audience which is predominantly composed of gay men.

The best performances tend to be those that take a well-known Eurovision number and take it in a new direction. 42nd Streetchooses UK winner Boom-Bang-a-Bang for this treatment – initially performing it reverentially in a 1969-style performance, until an interruption from Lulu (the song’s original singer, and who has recently joined the 42nd Streetcast) causes the cast to break out into a samba-infused version.

But this is eclipsed by the cast of Dreamgirls, who similarly start with a “straight” version of Making Your Mind Up, before junking it in favour of a hyped-up, soulful rendition that is both 100%Dreamgirlsand also a thrilling and faithful interpretation of the original.

Good as it may be, though, it is the cast of The Phantom of the Operathat dominates the proceedings. The long-running show has performed in every West End Eurovision, but has never previously won. And while their video ident, a spoof of Channel 4 series Gogglebox, was cruelly overlooked by the public vote (choosing, instead, the Hamiltonteam’s lacklustre parody of First Dates) no such cruelty befalls their onstage performance.

Choosing Rise Like a Phoenix, Conchita Wurst’s 2014 winner for Austria, the performance initially looks like it is going to be a straightforward performance, the combination of beautiful golden dress and full facial beard channeling Wurst’s signature look. But as the backing performers emerge, it is clear the Phantomteam are running with the idea. Women from other West End show, including Donna from Mamma Mia!and Elphaba from Wicked, are recreated with their own beards, before being joined by other hirsute theatrical characters – Harry Potter’s Dumbledore, The Greatest Showman’s Bearded Lady, even Cousin Thing from The Addams Family.

It’s a performance which is simultaneously bonkers, bold and brilliantly executed. It comes as no surprise, then, when in the scoring part of the evening Phantomtakes an early lead and only pulls further ahead with each round of scores. It is an appropriate win, as guest Graham Norton points out as he hands over the trophy: in recent weeks, Conchita Wurst has been forced to discuss her HIV status in public after facing blackmail threats from a former boyfriend, and her refusal to treat her diagnosis as a source of shame is the sort of message that TheatreMAD works hard to promote.

The show concludes with two genuine Eurovision performances. As with previous West End Eurovisionshows, a former entrant is invited to perform. Last year’s entrant, Lucie Jones, is an appropriate choice for the event’s revival, as she is enjoying a career in musical theatre herself, currently on tour with Legally Blonde. And kicking off what is hopefully a new tradition for subsequent charity events, the UK’s current entry SuRie performs her entry, Storm.

But great as these performances are, it is the companies of the West End shows who deserve the greatest attention. With each performance predominantly undertaken by the junior members of each show’s ensemble, the evening is both a celebration of the depth of talent within the West End and a valuable fundraiser for HIV charities.

Long may it continue.

Reviewed on April 22. | Image: Darren Bell

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