MICHAEL BALL: ALONE TOGETHER
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 27 September, 2004
****

Some publicity rumours you desperately wish were true without for an instant expecting them to be. Take, for instance, the idea that Michael Ball the handsome, hunkily cuddly, vanilla-sexy colossus of current British music theatre would, in his solo concert show Alone Together in the Haymarket's "Singular Sensations" season, show his "darker side" by performing some Radiohead. Puh-leaze.

I should have boned up on the reviews of this show's original 2001 run at the Donmar. I might even have taken a hint from the inclusion of John Lennon's harrowing Mother, albeit without the primal-scream coda. However, by the end of the second-half opener, a nine-minute medley of over 30 show tunes, I'd consigned the Radiohead idea to the fantasy folder. But wait a minute... what was that he was singing now to Jason Carr's sparse piano accompaniment? Blow me, it was "Nice Dream" from the album The Bends. That taught me; I didn't bat an eyelid a few minutes later when he belted out a rendition of the first single I ever bought, David Bowie's Life On Mars?

It's an astute idea by Ball and deviser/director Jonathan Butterell: a sung-through concert show. Apart from the spoken verses to Leiber & Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" and an explanatory intro, it's the songs that do the talking, about life, love, ageing and disillusionment. Most of the material is arranged in segues, some of them bizarre, as when "If You Were The Only Girl In The World" slides into "I Say A Little Prayer". But the sequences do work. Through them, we hear narrative, emotional progression, wry comment in the manner of the post-Sondheim American musical (from which genre a respectable proportion of the evening's material is culled).

And Ball does act the songs. His facial and gestural ranges aren't the widest, but he puts thought into, and conveys, more than the exigencies of the particular moment in the individual song. Carr's arrangements, too, are quietly audacious, as when he makes "The Man That Got Away" a lament for the singer's own confident youth or turns "I've Got No Strings" from Disney's Pinocchio into a dissonant, defiant but ultimately implausible claim of autonomy. After two hours of such a show, Michael Ball may still not be my particular cup of tea, but I realise that I had underestimated him at my peril.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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