While the big West End venues have been the ones all news has focused on during the pandemic, spare a thought for the smaller independent theatres who have far less disposable income and were more at risk of closure during this dark year. Gradually, these venues are starting to open though at a reduced capacity due to social distancing still being in place. One of those venues to open this week for the first time in 16 months is the Waterloo East Theatre - a hidden gem of a venue just a stones through from the hustle and bustle of Waterloo station and a bit of a secret when compared to the Old Vic around the corner.
The production the theatre reopened with was Starting Here, Starting Now - a musical revue of songs from Maltby and Shire. First seen in 1976, it has stood the test of time and is now revisited in this simple yet effective production starring three well-known performers.
Former Elphaba in Wicked Nikki Bentley's voice is unmistakable as she belts for the Gods, with highlights including solo number 'Autumn' and show standout number 'What About Today'. In ''Beautiful' you would be hard pushed to not compare her performance to 'Popular' from that show with the roles reversed as Bentley gives her fellow performer a makeover. One of the biggest talents in the industry, it was a thrill to see Bentley back on a stage again where she belongs.
Gina Murray gives a masterclass into the art of characterisation as she channels different people throughout the performance - never better than when she is playing a scorned lover. Her highlights include the brilliant 'Crossword Puzzle' - witty lyrics, comical at times and full of depth, it is perhaps the most memorable song of the evening. Weeks after seeing Mazz Murray similarly deliver a phenomenal performance in Sunset Boulevard, Gina proves the brilliant talent in that family doesn't just stop with her sister.
The trio are completed by former Hear'say star Noel Sullivan who shows off his remarkable vocals throughout the performance, even channeling a clown at one point. The highlight of his numbers is the emotional 'I Don't Remember Christmas'.
With a whopping 25 songs to get through, this revue doesn't give you the chance to breathe, especially considering it's all whizzed through in a single act. With a brief story-line linking some of the earlier songs about a love triangle from the performers, the rest of the songs become more standalone. A mix of solos, rotating duets and performances from the three together ensure the evening is diverse, with harmonies between the trio spectacular to witness.
A simple stage surrounds the trio, ensuring that all the focus is solely on them. Directed by Gerald Armin, no bells and whistles are needed for this as the cast say everything they want to with their facial expressions and charisma. The trio exhibit fantastic chemistry together, whether they are playing friends, strangers, lovers or exes. While remaining social distant at all times means they have had to make some clever tweaks to keep everyone safe - hugs and holding hand are mimicked but contact is never made. While this does lose a bit of the intended intimacy, it is not enough to distract from the performance at hand.
The three performers are accompanied by musical director Inga Davis-Rutter - the sole musician in the show, she keeps up with nothing more than a keyboard at her disposal, sometimes at a rapid pace to ensure the songs feel as tender or as grand as they deserve. Simple yet effective choreography accompanies the pieces and there is even a brief costume change as the show draws to its conclusion. Though some ill-advised audience interactions ends up being a rare misstep during the performance.
Even though the show is 45 years old, it feels more relevant than ever today. If the message of the show is starting your new life today, the timing could not be better. What we have all been through in the past 18 months has changed many people, and as we begin to come out of the other side, people are looking to start their new life.
Starting Here, Starting Now is a wonderful little show which proves how much can be done little more than a trio of talented performers. It is a spotlight into how capable and viable small independent theatres are, and why we should all be celebrating them and attending shows there as much as we all would do the larger West End venues.
Starting Here, Starting Now plays at the Waterloo East Theatre until July 18th. Tickets are available from http://www.waterlooeast.co.uk/