“Fate beckoned her…into a rather queer, unfamiliar atmosphere”
Entering the atmospheric entrance space of Wilton’s Music Hall for the gala launch of their Live at Wilton’s cabaret shows, my heart sank upon seeing the sign that said “due to unforeseen circumstance Hannah Waddingham is unable to perform tonight”. I’d booked mainly to see her again and having seen her at the Open Air Theatre on Tuesday watching The Comedy of Errors, I was rather disappointed but when the rest of the line-up includes Gwyneth Herbert, David McAlmont and Siân Phillips and you can call on Marc Almond for back up, you know you’re in for a good night anyway.
Live at Wilton’s is an attempt to secure the future of cabaret in London, somewhat timely with Pizza on the Park closing and Wilton’s Music Hall is laying claim to actually being the birthplace of cabaret in 1858, some 23 years before Le Chat Noir. It was an eclectic bill for sure, mixing the traditional with the ultra-modern, musical theatre with jazz, proper old-school music hall singalongs with the downright quirky. But it’s a programme that fits with Wilton’s Music Hall’s vision for its future, bringing together a vast array of talent to perform within its history-filled walls and covering all sorts of musical bases with a strong vein of storytelling running through them. And this evening displayed how it can suit so many styles of music perfectly; McAlmont’s vocal improvisations and Herbert’s ukulele-driven final number both making the most of the venue’s acoustics without microphones and being all-the-more effective for it.
Events kicked off with the incomparable Siân Phillips, she made a delightful diva’s entrance swathed in a huge tutti-frutti coloured striped scarf and gave a wonderful set, ranging from the pain of the spoke/sung ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ to the wry humour of Noel Coward’s ‘A Bar on the Piccola Marina’. Jessie Buckley’s slightly geeky stage presence belies a substantial vocal maturity (and she’s gotten rid of that annoying singing-out of-the-side-of-her-mouth tic she had on I’d Do Anything) but she was in danger of being outshone by Joe Thompson’s simply astonishing virtuosity on the piano: I could have listened to him playing all night. Closing the first act was David McAlmont, giving a relaxed set of jazz standards, the highlight of which was a doo-wop inspired take on ‘Stars Fell On Alabama’.
The second half started with Gwyneth Herbert, a canny piece of programming as she is an East London local (indeed her first song featured the 277 night bus) and her original compositions added a different texture to the evening, her multi-instrumentalism impressing and showing great humour in the face of technological mishap. Sophie-Louise Dann, an actress I hadn’t come across before, gave us a Sondheim number and a Judy Garland medley, both strong but veering a little close to cheesy for my liking. And stepping in at the last minute, Marc Almond rounded off the evening with a hastily prepared but still fantastic set. Having attended Sebastian Horsley’s funeral earlier that day, Almond regaled us with tales of the outlandish ceremony and dedicated his first couple of songs to him, then delivered a Richard Thompson number and finished with a rousing rendition of ‘Bread and Circus’ from his new album Varieté, its singalong chorus fitting perfectly into the venue.
The only thing that bugged a little was the set-up: the introduction of cabaret tables at the front of the venue was a nice touch but they were all reserved as were the front few rows of regular seating and I do not remember being offered the chance to buy reserved seats. I understand the need or desire to look after friends of the venue, but it is a little frustrating to be there early and still not be able to get as good a seat as one might have hoped for. And rather amusingly, despite being named as one of the venue’s patrons, Siân Phillips talked of how she had never been there before!
So all in all, a ruddy fantastic night out. No matter how many times I go, I can’t helped but be bewitched by Wilton’s Music Hall’s ambience and when matched with programming like this, it really does become a must-see venue. The Live at Wilton’s program of cabaret shows continues into September and currently includes shows by Frances Ruffelle and Jill Halfpenny so check their website and make the most of this opportunity to see cabaret in a venue that really suits it. Meanwhile I’ll go back and listen to my sneaky mp3 of Hannah Waddingham singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ from Elaine Paige’s radio show and let her make amends to me at Into the Woods in August.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Stars Fell On Alabama
Gwyneth Herbert, accompanied on guitar by Al Cherry
Sophie-Louise Dann, accompanied by Martin Lowe on piano
Marc Almond, didn’t catch name of his guitarist