Crowd Pleasers

STOKE’S TOP TALENT
Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Saturday 15th September, 2012

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing Alecky Blythe’s documentary-drama Where Have I Been All My Life? – a piece that revealed the experiences of a group of local people with their local talent show, a sort of X Factor making-of. My enjoyment of that play spurred me to attend the grand final of this year’s competition, out of curiosity more than anything else.

I had a great time.

Production values were high. Taking its cue from televised tournaments of this nature, it began with a fanfare (more Mahler than Orff) with searchlights and fireworks before the upstage curtain went up and there, in silhouetted Usain Bolt pose appeared our host for the evening, local celebrity and hero, Jonathan Wilkes.

On his home turf, Wilkes can do no wrong. He is in his element, at home on stage in more ways than one. He opened with a rendition of It’s Not Unusual, achieving just the right level of cheesiness, a mild cheddar rather than a full-on gorgonzola. He introduced the panel of judges who took their places behind a table on the front row of the stalls. Their reactions and comments were projected onto screens at either side of the proscenium. The line-up included Eric Potts, king of the panto script, West End star Louise Deerman, and choreographer Kevin Adams – worthies indeed. They were accompanied by the assistant editor of the local paper sponsoring the event, Martin Tideswell, panto dame and director Christian Patterson, and panto producer Kevin Wood. With the top prize being £2,000 and a part in this year’s production of Cinderella, the stakes were pretty high.

The Regent Theatre was packed out for the final, the culmination of a week of nightly heats. Each of the twelve finalists had their own faction of supporters, some more voluble than others – a dance troupe of five is going to bring more supporters than a soloist, of course.

And so began the acts. At once I was impressed both with the quality of the production (directed by Mrs Wilkes herself) but also the high standard of the acts. This was to be no village hall festival of embarrassment. There was no awfulness in which to relish.

Opening act, 3D, set the bar high: two girls and a boy, all aged eleven, performing a more than competent dance routine. Next 14-year-old Leanne belting out Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing. Then 12 year-old Reece – a theme was established early on: the contestants are all so young. Reece’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah got the better of him, unfortunately. It was the wrong choice of song for someone lacking in life experience – this thought was to recur a couple of times as the evening progressed.

Shae Maunders, 15 years old and accompanying herself on the ukulele, was a breath of fresh air – the first to perform without a backing track, her quirky medley took us from the Beatles‘ Can’t Buy Me Love to Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, via Bruno Mars’s Lazy Song among others. It was a refreshing change of pace and she instantly became one of my favourites. Shae was then eclipsed by 20 year old, David Jiminez-Hughes – what this young man can do with an acoustic guitar and a couple of pedals is phenomenal. This was an individual displaying an extraordinary talent, rather than singing what they think they’re expected to sing, or dancing the way they think they’re expected to dance. It was beautiful.

The first half was closed by two 8 year old gymnasts dressed as other local hero Robbie Williams in Let Me Entertain You face paint. Skilful and confident “NRG” bounced around the stage like miniature muscle men on elastic.

By the interval I was glad I wasn’t on the judging panel. A tough decision already.

The second half was opened by Louise Deerman performing D C Lee’s See The Day, a bonus indeed! You’ll have heard Louise Deerman perform without realising: she’s the voice of Confused dot com.

Back to the acts: a dance troupe called Mini Mix who had won the Sentinel’s online readers’ vote. Again, it was more than competent but not really my taste. This is where acts like this need what is known as the X or Wow factor – something to lift them above the others performing this kind of thing.

Bradley Hammond (17) performed Feeling Good (fish in the sea, you know how I feel – that one) pleasingly enough with an individual vocal quality. With a bit of coaching to sort out some of his breathing, he could do well next year. Katie Barlow (16) was a vision of elegance, note perfect and technically superior but again I question the choice of song. The emotional range of singers needs to be considered when selecting material.

Winners of the audience vote, comedy duo Martyn & Cole, blew me away. One lanky with a mop of hair, the other stout with glasses, these two performed a routine of dance numbers that was technically excellent and very funny. Their Beyonce Single Ladies segment was astounding. And I suddenly had a new favourite act!

Oldest in the final at a staggering 23, Carrie-Ann Williams sang Nessun Dorma. When it began I wondered why she hadn’t chosen an aria written for the female voice. It soon became clear. She raised the roof with this popular crowd-pleaser. Everyone was blown away.

Finally, another girl group, this one called Dolly Mix. Very tight as a unit and technically impressive, but I come back to my earlier point, something extra is needed to raise them above other acts of this type.

The judges went backstage for their unenviable task of selecting the winner. When the standard is so high across the board it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste in the end. The audience was left to watch video footage of auditions. There were the older contestants, including some pensioners who try for it every year, and it was clear we’d had some narrow escapes.

At last, the verdict was in. It was a genuinely tense moment as they filed back to their seats. Jonathan Wilkes called all the acts on stage and wove between them, dismissing them in random order with a simple “It’s not your night”. The way those kids took this rejection on the chin and left the stage in good spirits is testament to the way the whole thing is organised and executed.

None of my particular favourites reached the final three – the comedy duo would have fitted in very well with Eric Potts’s panto stylings, I felt. Maybe next year, lads.

In third was Dolly Mix, getting £500 to split between them.

In second was NRG, the little gymnasts and very popular within the house.

The winner was…. (Unnecessary pause to manipulate the tension)… opera singer Carrie-Ann. A worthy choice and the look of shock and surprise that struck her was a genuinely heart-warming moment. Somehow she managed to pull herself together and perform the song again and provide a rousing finale to a very enjoyable evening.

I look forward to hearing her sing again, probably at Prince Charming’s ball. When she sang “Vincero!” the first time, I should have believed her.

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About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO View all posts by williamstafford

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