Reviewer: Kat Pope
Keeping people standing outside in the foyer for well over half an hour isn’t a good start to any evening, but people were forgiving for last night’s West End Heroes as it was a one-off charity gala concert for Help for Heroes on the stage where We Will Rock You has lived for over a decade. A few technical hitches were only to be expected. And it gave a chance for the rumour to catch fire that Prince Harry was going to put in an appearance. After all, what else could that heavy police presence be about? But no royal visitation was forthcoming, unless you count the Chelsea Pensioners in the Royal Box who got one of the biggest cheers of the night.
Hosted by the naturally funny Brian Conley, West End Heroes was a non-stop – and ear-splitting – medley of what makes the West End great, and all for a cause that was evidently very dear to the audience’s hearts judging by their reaction to any mention of its name.
Nicely warmed up by a trumpet fanfare from the Band of the Irish Guards, and patriotically fired-up by God Save the Queen, the audience settled down to a mixture of schmaltz (well, a little), showbiz and very shiny shoes, all anchored nicely by the 50 piece RAF band adorning the back half of the large stage.
The first half, a mixture of West End performers and some of the army’s own shining lights, was a belter. Some Like It Hip Hop fired up the crowd, while vocal powerhouses Rachel Tucker, Louise Dearman and Gina Beck gave it all they had with songs from Wicked and Funny Girl. WOMAN the Band (yes, rotten name), appropriately for the stage they were on, gave Fat Bottomed Girls a 1940s Andrews Sisters twist which worked surprisingly well, while The Soldiers (yes, rotten name) kept the Queen theme going with a singalonga We Are The Champions accompanied by much chest thumping.
Between acts Conley danced around the stage being effortlessly stupid, but in a good way. Although his jokes were older than the Prince Philip (“One cold snap and we could lose two thirds of this room”), he held the room spellbound both when solo-clowning and when using an audience foil. His jokes creaked and groaned but he judged the night perfectly with a mix of light smut and silliness, beginning with a very informal dropping of the trousers. He then reminded us that he was once a West End star himself with a three year award-winning run under his belt by doing his Al Jonson hammy Mammy.
Stomp banged and crashed the first half to a noisy close, while a gloriously glittery We’re In The Money high kicking chorus line opened the second half with aplomb. The Overtones (I did for a minute think Feargal Sharkey was going to turn up), five Michael Bublés all in a row, got the girls in the front rows all a-quiver with a Frankie Valli cover while the cast of We Will Rock You bashed out Bohemian Rhapsody with a little military help on the guitar solos.
Spamalot with Always Look on the Bright Side of Life came and went and left the audience curiously unmoved, while a cute Joe McElderry, legs looking rather sausage-like in his trendy skinny jeans, had to cope with a strange clockwork whirring coming from the back of the theatre while he battled through West Side Story’s Somewhere. Easily the weakest offering of the evening, McElderry showed how coasting on the back of a TV talent show is really very easy.
Gloria Onitiri showed Joe how it should be done with I Have Nothing from her show The Bodyguard, receiving a now increasingly common standing ovation. The audience adored her and she seemed quite taken aback by their reaction.
Moving down a couple of gears, the show could have easily descended into mawkishness, but when the manager of the theatre introduced a Band of Brothers soldier who nonchalantly quipped “I left my leg in Afghanistan a few years ago and that’s that”, it avoided that particularly slippery slope with an offhand wave. And then came the treat of the evening, surprisingly not from a West End powerhouse, but from a source closer to home – Musician Ellie Lomas singing a moving Feels Like Home accompanied by Band Corporal Andy Platt on guitar, while images of soldiers on the front line, soldiers injured, soldiers arriving home to loved ones were projected onto the huge curtain behind them. It was moving, and it was musically exceptional.
The reflective mood continued with Geronimo Rauch performing a perfect Bring Him Home from Les Miserables, with the finale of the evening involving the whole company in a rendition of Do You Hear the People Sing? Help for Heroes flags were waved, tears were brushed aside, pockets were dug into deeply. Even this non-military republican was carried away.
Gala concerts are often rushed affairs, slung together at the last minute, full of holes and gaps and creaks, and although West End Heroes did have its fair share of minor mishaps, on the whole the thing held together remarkably well. As everyone rushed to get the last bus or train home on a Sunday evening (the show overran by half an hour), many a thought was with those not able to go home that night.
Photo: Claire Bilyard