Yesterday, The Theatre Cafe launched 'The Theatre Channel' - a new series of shows featuring some of the biggest and best names in the West End. Ahead of its launch, I had the opportunity to watch the creators talk about how the project came about and what the future holds. Read on for the information and a review of the first episode in the series.
When the world turned upside down back in March, The Theatre Cafe wasted no time in finding new ways to create new theatre content so we all didn't starve without any. Teaming up with Lambert Jackson Productions, within days they had created 'Leave A Light On' - a series of concerts performed inside the temporarily closed cafe and featuring anyone and everyone used to performing on the West End stage. Not only did it give theatre fans performances to enjoy while we were all trapped inside our homes, more importantly it kept actors in work.
All good things come to an end, but when the Leave A Light On series came to its natural conclusion in May, a new normal had been created. The creative industries thrived finding ways to stage performances while we weren't allowed to leave the house and while theatres were shut. The Theatre Cafe were an integral part of that.
The Theatre Channel is the latest initiative from The Theatre Cafe - this time teaming up with Adam Blanshay Productions to create a series of unique content, completely recorded and filmed in its location on St Martin's Lane utilising every nook and cranny the space has to offer. The series will feature a minimum of 10 episodes with four more to be shown this side of Christmas. Each episode will feature an average of 7 performances. Through this series, the collaboration between Adam Blanshay Productions and The Theatre Cafe are able to employ over 100 people at a time when work in the arts is so few and far between. For that alone, this series should be commended.
So let's delve into the debut episode which premiered yesterday (Friday 2nd October):
The first episode started with a bang. The key criteria for performances in this series are songs each person has not performed before in a bid to push them out of their comfort zone. It would be easy for Lucie Jones to perform 'She Used To Be Mine' on this - not that there's anything wrong with that as that is always a delight for the senses. Instead, she performs a spectacular version of 'Maybe This Time' from Cabaret, giving us a sense of what is going to make this series so special and unmissable each episode.
If the thought of an entire series of performances filmed in a small cafe doesn't sound like the most interesting thing, you are seriously underestimating the versatility of the venue. The Theatre Cafe is brilliantly transformed into Mushnik's Flower Shop for a wonderul duet of 'Suddenly Seymour' from real life partners Carrie Hope Fletcher and Oliver Ormson, while the talk of using every inch of the venue is brought to life as Jodie Steele hijacks the roof for a standout performance of 'Heaven On Their Minds' from Jesus Christ Superstar. Through various shows this year, Jodie has proved what an immense talent she is and with this performance she demonstrates an ability that should see her become one of the biggest West End stars this country has to offer.
Matt Henry did a more obscure theatre song with 'Let It Sing' from Violet, brilliantly performing in front of a Kinky Boots poster, Jenna Russell channelled her best Patti LuPone performing a note-perfect rendition of 'Ladies Who Lunch' from Company while Tarinn Callender had us all missing the bright lights with a brilliant version of 'On Broadway'. The performances were accompanied by "The Cafe Four" comprising of Alyn Hawke, Emily Langham, Sadie-Jean Shirley and Alex Woodward - four incredibly talented triple threats who, as well as accompanying the other performanes, launched the series with their own performance of 'Coffee In A Cardboard Cup'. While the guests will change each episode, the Cafe Four are here to stay so prepare to fall in love with each of them over the course of the series.
The series features direction and choreography from Bill Deamer and musical supervision by Michael England. Sometimes you forget you are watching a show entirely filmed inside a cafe as the production value is phenomenal. Details such as lighting, sound design, set and costume design and even the camera work makes this feel a lot grander than it sounds on paper.
Ultimately episode one was a triumph and leaves me wanting the next episode, and indeed the entire series, now. That is the problem with binge culture I guess! Having to wait is a first world problem we are not always used to.
Luckily, episode two will land on Friday 30th October and it looks set to be absolutely spooktacular. THe Halloween themed episode features Bradley Jaden and Sophie Isaacs singing 'Life After Life' from Dracula, Josh Piterman singing 'THe Confrontation' from Jekyll and Hyde, a to be confirmed performance from Aimie Atkinson, and most excitingly a unique performace from Carrie star Linzi Hateley, revisiting the musical that launched her career but this time performing 'When There;s No One' - a number usually sung by Carrie's mother in the show. During the event, it was revealed Linzi had called the performance she filmed the highlight of her year. Definitely something to be excited for.
Episode 3 will launch in mid November, episode 4 in early Deember with a special Christmas episode landing on Christmas Day. Details of future episodes are being kept closely under wraps but we have been told to expect to be blown away by some surprises and more creative use of the space. While a host of West End stars are set to perform over the course of the series, a Broadway star who will be visiting these shores briefly has been teased for the Christmas episode as well as an actor from Paris and even a Bollywood star. Future episodes will feature unique duets and group numbers, and the creators expressed the hope of devoting a future episode to new musical writing.
During a Q&A with the creatives behind the show, Bill Keamer talked about the necessity of this series to show the world how viable the Arts really are, stating "This is what we do" - a reference to people in the industry being referred to as low-skilled by the ever supportive British Government. musical supervisor Michael England talked about what a joy it is to be working again and providing work for so many talented performers. He also revealed details of the vocals being recorded in a studio downstairs in the cafe with the performances then being lip-synched for technical reasons. Group performances from the Cafe Four have to be recorded individually due to Covid guidelines. The series is aiming to fill the void created by the lack of theatre and hoping to create a theatrical experience but is not trying to replace live performnces altogether.
Each number is rehearsed and recorded in a single day on site at the Cafe. It provides a challenge as everybody adapts to the new ways of working, including ensuring social distancing is adhered to with the cameras whizzing around - something that isn't too easy in a small space.
Adam Blanshay spoke about the importance of equal opportunity and how conscious he is when casting for the series. He reiiterated there is no place for any kind of discrimination and this series will be all about celebrating theatre in all its glory.
As mentioned before, the big thing for this series is to push the performers out of their comfort zones, give them the opportunity to try out something new rather than something that is already comfortably in their repertoire. Song choices proved difficult in some instances with songs not always being cleared or the search for the perfect song not coming easily. In the case of 'Ladies Who Lunch;, Stephen Sondheim gave Adam Blanshay his personal seal of approval for the performance. The brief for the song choice are songs that could believably take place in the building - as scene with the tranformation in 'Suddenly Seymour' that doesn't necessarily need to be 70 songs about a coffee shop, although surely a bit of Waitress is bound to feature in a future episode?
Each episode costs £12 to buy but for that price you own it and are able to watch it as much as your heart desires. While the price may seem steep, it has been deliberately set at a price that doesn't devalue the performance, as explained by Michael England. He spoke about charging a nominal price or even giving content away for free has the danger of cheapening the performance, and ultimately performers need to be paid what they deserve, just like any other job.
If episode one is anything to go by, this series is going to be a must watch for theatre fans. The innovation and creativity that we have seen in bringing out new theatre content over these past six months has been nothing short of inspirational, and this collaboration is no exception. Who knows when all the theatres will be able to re-open their doors again? The future is still so uncertain. One thing that is certain though is there will always be theatre in some shape of form, with new ways to connect with audience andkeep peerformande alive being the one constant in this ever-changing world. Adam Blanshay summed it up brilliantly when he said this project is the embodiment of the phrase "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade"
Episode 1 of 'The Theatre Channel' is available to purchase now. Episode 2 is available for pre-order, released on October 30th. Visit www.thetheatre.co.uk/channel to download.