Unable to review the first two weekly performances of the West End Drive In, I start reviewing three weeks in, with the expectation, given that we are now halfway into the show’s run (19th February to 21st March), to be absolutely blown away by West End talent, by professionals at the top of their game… this was not the case.
The West End Drive In is highly disappointing, I must say. Talent seems to be fleeting; organisation — from camera operation to staging to music cues — is, in places, rather dreadful, with a total lack of preparation for British weather and how this might affect performance; a clear lack of rehearsal; and a devastatingly bland and jumbled lineup of music lacking theme, structure and relevance. But there is one beacon of hope, someone of whom I shall speak very highly in this review, and that is the hostess, Shenay Holmes. Holmes knows not only how to hype up a crowd but is a tremendous performer, bringing vitality, energy and experienced and intelligent vocals to the stage. It is clear as to why she has been chosen to host. The only thing I would quickly add here is that introductions of the performances to come often need to be a lot more particularised and tailored.
However, when she first enters onto the stage, the choice of music she sings is…interesting. On the West End Drive In website and in advertisements, descriptions state: ‘Each week stars from the biggest West End shows will perform your favourite musical theatre hits – live on stage!’ Nowhere in descriptions does it state that pop songs shall be sung…and so I think it is perfectly viable to be confused when Holmes starts to sing ’Single Ladies’ by Beyoncé, or when Sophie Evans later sings ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’. In fact, songs that don’t originate from the West End come up quite frequently in this performance, with songs like ‘Part of Your World’ from Disney’s The Little Mermaid or ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen. What is surprising to me where Frozen songs are concerned is that there is no mention whatsoever of Frozen the Musical purported to hit the stage in August this year. Instead, the focus remains on Holmes’s love for Disney Plus, making the song rather irrelevant to the show’s cause. Famous songs from musical films are not the same as musical numbers from the West End, nor are pop songs, and so it is very easy, considering that guests spend up to £71.55 per ticket (not including food that may be purchased on-site) to feel cheated out of their money. I was simply confounded as to why there were not more actual West End musical numbers…did we buckle under copyright legislations? Did we not know that many musicals? What happened?!
Wanting to know if I’d missed anything, I went through the process of purchasing a ticket to see what the ordinary non-press-ticket-holder would see, and there was no mention whatsoever of which ‘stars’ would be performing on this night, nor was there any mention that nearly all of the songs would be taken from the musical Wicked, with almost all performers originating from its cast. Instead, the description reads (noting also the quotation referenced above): ‘Previous guests include stars from The Lion King, Hamilton, Les Miserables, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six, Waitress, Phantom Of The Opera, Wicked and many more [sic]’. All of the limited information we are provided seems to hint that we are to expect a night full of classic hits from various West End musicals, a concert full of songs from these various musicals listed and perhaps ‘many more’. A night full of Wicked songs, as good as that sounds, is not what is advertised when purchasing a ticket. I would recommend this be changed but also that future guests be aware that performances might be very limited in terms of content –– and that you might simply be in for a night of songs from Disney films!
Most West End stars play the same role continuously every night for multiple years in a row, and this really shows when the so-called stars in this performance chance their luck and sing something from a musical in which they have not performed officially themselves. Otherwise strong singers and performers seem to have thrown themselves out of their comfort zones, and not to mention their vocal ranges, to tackle songs with which we would, and perhaps should, never associate them. It becomes clear quite early on in this performance that training is what makes their voices so melodious elsewhere and that stars of Wicked, for example, should probably stick to Wicked songs, or, at the very least, get a second opinion before bringing a personal favourite to the stage with very little evidence of rehearsal.
This brings me to a certain pet peeve involving Sophie Evans specifically. Evans misses her cue for her first song, then makes fun of the fact that she has missed her cue, then, in a duet, turns to Alice Fearn and says, ‘I hope I remember the words’, to which Fearn replies, ‘So do I’. This is an outrageous display of nonchalance and complete lack of professionalism and preparation. Guests do not want to pay over £70 for an ex-Wicked star who has been ‘caught off guard’ and forgotten her lyrics! And thankfully, she had not, but we would expect at least one rehearsal before taking to the stage after grabbing our money… Music cues on the whole are often ill organised, in fact; I would recommend waiting until performers have actually reached the stage before starting the music!
As referenced above, I had problems with all of the singers’ vocals, barring Holmes. Laura Pick missed her notes regularly throughout the entirety of the performance, her voice often cracking when her pitch changed; Emma Hatton, also missing her notes in places, had bad diction, her voice fading off prematurely after crescendoes; and Alice Fearn replaced ‘belting’ with shouting in her subpar rendition of ‘Let It Go’.
Aesthetically, the West End Drive In does not offer very much. Other than an odd and seemingly irrelevant secluded section filled with disco-balls and buried in the top-right back wall of the stage, there is little to catch the eye. I was also displeased to find that there was no roof on the stage… Why was this a problem? Well, it meant that performers had to hold umbrellas. With the exception of one performance from Hatton, which I shall detail shortly, all performers –– again, excluding Holmes –– had such little physicality, and this was particularly the case for Fearn who emoted only through one flat-palmed hand. This meant that now holding an umbrella, all performers simply swayed from side to side, like a pathetic dad dance at a family disco. These are West End performers; I would expect more than a side-step and an outreaching hand.
There is no costume, no lighting, no props –– which, in theory, would be fine, but it just means that there is so little to serve as visual appeal. Back to that one performance by Hatton. This is a rendition of ‘No Good Deed’ from [you guessed it…] Wicked. Rather unintentionally, I presume, Hatton’s viridescent dress billowed in the wind as she sang –– in key! –– with high energy and emotion. The only song in the entire production sung by the guest stars that actually had a repertoire of meaningful movement and vitality as well as visual appeal, not to mention that Hatton actually changed her dresses between songs. Some sense of aesthetic was really nice to salvage here. Although, perhaps this should come more naturally to a performance, rather than being alluded to by Hatton: “Definitely the right dress for that song, wasn’t it?” Such successful moments should feel a lot more intentional and organic, not a jokey surprise to the performer. What is more, it is a shame that Fearn could not match this performance with the more-significant, awaited rendition of ‘Defying Gravity’.
I should probably mention here, too, that the rain not only affected the side-stepping performers but also the camera… After we witness the second camera struggling to find that very same secluded section of the stage, even though the previous performance had taken place in that exact location, the first camera ends up covered in rain. Really?! No rain cover, no hood? People are expected to pay £15 for a camera that cannot find its subject, another blurred by rain, and performers who cannot hold a note…? Dreadful.
Overall, an alright afternoon to ‘get your groove on’ to some music, so to speak, but nothing worth the money or journey in the rain. The sort of calmer local park charity vibe where talking to a friend, walking a dog or having a go at the lucky dip holds more interest than the otherwise background and ambient music on stage. In other words, bring a book to keep yourself entertained.