It’s Thursday evening, and I find myself kindly invited along to see the World Premiere of the latest West End production to throw open its doors – Respect La Diva!
Billed as “a spectacular and uplifting musical celebration paying tribute to some of the greatest female singers of all-time” – this sounded PERFECT for a lovely relaxed evening (after a VERY stressful week), slouched in a chair in a darkened theatre, listening to some of the greatest songs ever performed!
Created by Adrian Grant, the chap behind another West End hit, Thriller Live, I felt that this show was more of a high-class cabaret than musical theatre performance – which is not necessarily a bad thing, and exactly what I was expecting!
The highlight of the production for me was always going to be seeing Sheila Ferguson (one of the Three Degrees, who I used to/still ADORE heh!).
The show features some great vocal talents, and in that respect, this show lives up to its name. I would say that Denise Pearson is absolutely the lynch-pin diva in this production, driving it forward and keeping it all together, whilst Sheila Ferguson, Katy Setterfield and Zoe Birkett also turned in some fab performances, as did the three mini-divas, headed up by the awesome Rietta Austin. In fact, the mini-divas version of Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life” was probably the highlight of the entire show for me.
At 26, I am still something of a spring chicken (I keep telling myself this every year hehe), and I am a huge fan of music from the ‘old days’ and so, for me, it was magnificent to hear a real-life-live band belting out some of these classic tunes from the 60s and 70s, as I’ve only ever heard them on record before!
In terms of overall flow, however, if I am honest, the show jarred far too much for me. During Act 1, there was some loose, occasionally lengthy, and at times cringe-worthy narration by Andy Abraham (which really could do with re-scripting in my opinion), and by Act 2 this narrative was simply non-existent. Similarly, as there are so many things happening on stage sometimes during the songs, it is simply impossible to take everything in, and it becomes a little distracting at times. Dealing with 30 songs, all with their own theme, is a lot to take in, without extra bits trying to grab your attention too. In terms of ‘flow’, within the space of about ten minutes, in Act 2, we had a random pilot on the stage, some random children with candles, only some of which were lit, and they were only present for 30 seconds, and then the heavily staged story with the sound-engineer came to a head, albeit it took most of us about 20 seconds to realise who it was (which I would hope that they make a bit clearer as this show develops more). The vocal is totally what sells this show, and to my mind, there is nothing wrong with just a show consisting of Diva(s), and a mic!
The producers may also want to rescript the bit where Andy Abraham says “and now, a tribute to singers that are no longer with us”… the lights dim, and ‘Barbra Streisand’ walks on and for a full 20 seconds, sings Memories, on her own, on the stage. There was nothing short of uproar and pandemonium in the upper circle – nearly EVERYONE was nudging the person next to them, in front of them, and behind them and exclaiming ‘oh my god, has she died?!’ Absolute chaos! (Incidentally, my recommendation would be to perhaps have Barbra singing off stage and slowly walk on as the video screen starts flashing up).
… and don’t even get me started on the fact that the production makes Amy Winehouse the focus of their montage – I’m sorry, but personal opinion is that this is a little hyperbolic and I don’t really feel she fits into a line up that includes Judy Garland, Janis Joplin and Diana Washington! As I say, personal opinion, though it should be noted that the rest of the audience seemed to appreciate her inclusion/focus.
Another thing that I really did not like, was how the production shoehorns a charity plea right into the middle of the second act. Whilst it is VERY admirable that they are working so closely with a charity, due to the timing, it brought a really awkward and downbeat atmosphere to the auditorium and would be best placed during the encore/bows, especially as people are much more likely to have their mobile phones on by then, and not during the production!
That brings me to my next point – due to the ‘fun’ and cabaret style of this production, the audience to seem to be a little misbehaved at times – there were certainly a lot more people openly talking during the production, checking their phones and going to the toilet than in a conventional show. An announcement by the stage manager at curtain up to remind people that they are in a theatre would really help to improve this I reckon.
One final advisory point that I would make – I saw a lot more of the production team than I would ever want to see. I was sat at the rear of the upper circle, but I judge that anyone from the Dress upwards could see right into the stage lift pit – a curtain at the back of the pit, so that the audience cannot see back of house lights, would really help, as, again, this was very distracting to the eye as you could see right down there, and all the production staff setting up the lift for the next item.
I should add that I do not begrudge this production any of the above. After all, this show has only had one preview and has effectively launched straight into the main run – there is definitely an audience for this show, once it finds its feet, and I really think that this show both knows it’s demographic and appeals to it. A three-week run in the West End is a perfect length for this production, and I reckon that this will go down an absolute storm on the regional circuit. It is, however, a bit of a pity that it has started off in the West End, being as unprepared as it appears.
Tonight it was also fun to see some really gruff and ‘butch’ men in the audience having a sing and dance along, and I can only imagine that the fun of seeing this in regional theatres, such as my hometown of Manchester, will be amazing – as men in the North like to reflect a certain tough guy image… well, apart from when Diana Ross is on the radio! hehe!!
In summation, this is a really fun, if technically a rather clunky show, and the vocal performances alone (which is exactly what I went along for) make this well worth a visit, as you’ll certainly not be disappointed! Whilst I have picked out a few bits that I didn’t personally think worked as effectively as they could have, they didn’t particularly spoil my enjoyment of what is essentially a fun and carefree show.
Respect La Diva gets around three of those attitude-y hand whirly-snap-things (and a diva frost stare; PLUS a marriage proposal for Sheila Ferguson!!), out of five from me! 😛
Respect La Diva is currently playing at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End until September 24th, when it will then embark on a national tour. The show lasts 2 hours 20 minutes, and has one interval. For tickets, further production information and the like, please visit the official production website.
Gents: as this is a bit of a girly show, you’ll be pleased to know that the toilets during the interval are pleasantly deserted! Makes a very nice change not to have to queue! heh.