Last weekend saw the return of West End LIVE, just 9 months after the delayed 2021 one and the first time it has returned to its regular June slot since 2019. If you haven't been to a West End LIVE before, it is always one of the theatre highlights of the year. Being crammed in Trafalgar Square among tens of thousands of likeminded theatre fans creates an atmosphere like no other.
An estimated 55,000 people crammed in for 11 hours of performances from over 50 shows - featuring a total of 541 performers.
I was there all day on Saturday and most of the day on Sunday - here are 20 of the standout performances from the incredible weekend:
DISNEY ON STAGE: THE LION KING, FROZEN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Now THIS is how you kick off a weekend. Setting the bar ridiculously high, we had a revolving door of West End stars including Samantha Barks, Steph McKeon and Courtney Stapleton singing 'Circle Of Life', 'I Can't Lose You' and 'Beauty And The Beast' before all coming together for a rousing finale. This was a moment!
OmiGod you guys. Another early highlight came from the cast of Legally Blonde who didn't just opt for two songs from the show but two entire segments. With props, staging, dialogue and costume changes (Snaps for Courtney Bowman having 3 costumes in 2 songs) this was the gold standard of how to do a West End LIVE performance.
At West End LIVE, you have just 5-10 minutes to represent and essentially show people just why they should book tickets. Pretty Woman did that perfectly, with the brilliant ensemble number of 'Never Give Up On A Dream' followed by standout song 'I Can't Go Back' performed brilliantly by understudy Elly Jay. After that performance I announced I HAD to go back... and guess where I'm going next week? Job done!
THE BARRICADE BOYS
It's not just musicals that perform at West End LIVE. Other types of show are present with the wonderful Barricade Boys being a regular fixture. With incredible vocals and a surprisingly fresh song list (No Les Mis in sight this year), this had me longing to see a full show from them.
Speaking of Les Mis, they may not have done anything different this year but how can you possibly top the triple bill of 'On My Own', 'Bring Him Home' amd 'One Day More'. The climax of that last number never fails to provide a spine-tingling standout moment and this year was no exception.
MY SON'S A QUEER... BUT WHAT CAN YOUY DO?
The Turbine Theatre showcased some of the amazing shows they've produced in a section on Sunday afternoon and one highlight has to be this incredible song from Rob Madge's deeply moving and special show. Joined by an ensemble including Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Kayla Carter and Isaac Hesketh, this had me longing for this show to make a return to London.
One show that knows how to win over an audience is Mamma Mia. Performing some of the most loved feel-good upbeat numbers, this was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The fact it featured the living legend that is Mazz Murray as Donna made sure I had the time of my life watching it.
West End LIVE is always a great opportunity to preview new shows that haven't opened in the West End yet. One of the most anticipated is Sister Act which finally arrives in London next month. Just one day ahead of its Manchester debut, the wonderful Lizzie Bea admirably travelled back to London to represent the show with a stunning performance of 'The Life I Never Led'
THE DRIFTERS GIRL
Before Beverley Knight leaves to join Sister Act, she showed just why her performance in The Drifters Girl has wowed audiences all year along with the amazing Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud providing an incredible performance.
ROLES WE'LL NEVER PLAY
Always a special night when they do a concert, some recognisable faces including Luke Bayer and Lauren Byrne sung excerpts of songs you wouldn't usually hear them sing in this fast paced and fabulous segment with vocals for days!
FANTASTICALLY GREAT WOMEN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD
This new musical has just arrived in London. It's tour through some of the most influential women in history who championed womens rights felt timelier than ever - and this was referenced in a particular rousing speech from Kirstie Skivington before 'Deeds Not Words'. If this show was important before, it's crucial now!
The weekend closed with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra performing with the casts of the three shows they will shortly be taking over Theatre Royal Drury Lane with. While Chess and Kinky Boots were worth checking out, there is something special about Treason. I have loved watching this show grow so seeing the cast including Carrie Hope Fletcher perform these fabulous songs had me even more excited for the show.
RISE OF THE COVERS
One aspect from this years West End LIVE I adored was the use of covers and swings (not see-saws) in performances. Whether they were planned or not, they were a perfect representation of what keeps the industry going and why the show really must go on.
Here are just 3 examples from the weekend:
BONNIE & CLYDE
While Jordan Luke Gage was ready to reprise his jawdropping role as Clyde, covers Charlie McCullagh and Lauren Jones only found out they would be performing at 11am that morning (less than 2 hours before their stage time). What transpired was Lauren giving one of the best vocals of the day in 'Dyin' Ain't So Bad' with Charlie and Jordan forming a fantastic double act on 'When I Drive'.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
After a gorgeous performance from Lucy St Louis and Rhys Whitfield, three covers from the cast united to deliver a stirring rendition of 'The Music Of The Night' and prove how incredible they all are in a true highlight of the weekend.
COME FROM AWAY
A true testament to the power of covers came on the close of Saturday as Mark Dugdale from Come From Away told the crowd in a powerful speech that while you see 12 performers on stage, they are a cast of 8, before introducing all 8 covers led by Jennifer Tierney for a truly remarkable rendition of 'Me And The Sky'.
While there were many incredible performances over the weekend with over 50 shows being represented, I have managed to narrow it down to my top 5 of the weekend:
5. THE CHOIR OF MAN & SIX
Both delivering brilliant sets on both days in their own right, the surprising climax of The Choir of Man with a cover of 'Heart of Stone' from Six only to be joined by the Queens themselves was an unforgettable once in a lifetime experience... until they did it again the next day. Though when it is THAT special, once just isn't enough!
It may have been the exact same set as last year but when it is this flawless, who cares? The new cast of Hamilton performed 'Alexander Hamilton', 'The Schuyler Sisters' and 'My Shot' in a brilliant example of what makes that musical one of my all time favourites - special mention to Shan Ako who left me desperate to return to the room where it happens to see her Eliza.
West End LIVE without Wicked would be like Bonnie without Clyde. It was even more exciting this year as Lucie Jones got to show her Elphaba to thousands of giddy fans in Trafalgar Square channelling a pop concert for a particularly fun 'Defying Gravity' as well as a beautiful duet of 'For Good' with Helen Woolf.
2. DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Mixing it up a bit with a brilliant version of 'Sincerely, Me', the whole cast (except the one on Evans arm) then came out for what will be the shows final West End LIVE to deliver an even more emotional than usual 'You Will Be Found' played in front of a backdrop of a timeline of the West End production from when it was first announced to its final performance this October. To say I was an emotional mess would be an understatement.
The performance of the entire weekend came from Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club who got their fabulous Sally Bowles cover Emily Benjamin to deliver what can only be described as a masterclass performance in her rendition of the title track. Notably different to the versions I've seen by Amy Lennox and Jessie Buckley, this was truly outstanding. The stunned reaction followed by rapturous applause spoke volumes for how well received this was - my hands were genuinely sore after due to how enthusiastically I clapped!
More performances can be found on the official YouTube channel.
If you have never been to West End LIVE before, you are missing something truly special. To see all these amazing shows in one place for free is incredible in itself, but it's the atmosphere that really makes West End LIVE such a memorable experience. Being around thousands of likeminded fans all sharing our love of theatre is the very best of what theatre can do. Whether you're with friends or making new ones, this is THE highlight of the stagey calendar for me and one I look forward to attending every year.
See you all at West End LIVE 2023!