This year’s Royal Variety Performance is notable for a couple of firsts. It is the first time in the event’s 99-year history that it has been held in Salford and the first time in 20 years that it hasn’t been attended by either the Queen or the Prince of Wales. Whether or not these two things are related has been a matter of some conjecture. But it also marks the first outing under ITV1’s exclusive ten-year deal to screen the show, after years of playing tag-team with the BBC.
Phantoms of the Opera with Nicole Scherzinger at the Lowry, Salford Quays Photo: Ken McKay/ITV
And the next decade should give ITV’s production team ample time to grasp the complexities of managing a beast as strange and unwieldy as the Royal Variety Performance, as an enjoyable if disjointed evening’s entertainment was marred by technical problems that left some red faces onstage and an increasingly exasperated Peter Kay with acres of extra time to fill as host. Kay half joked that the night had been “20 minutes of entertainment dragged out over two and half hours”. Trouble is, as the longueurs between acts got longer, the running time was pushed well beyond the four-hour mark.
But then the Royal Variety Performance has become less about the spectacle in the auditorium and more about the finished TV product. And edited together and sharpened up, a flabby and staccato evening will certainly be condensed into a palatable package. Especially as, staging quibbles aside, the highlights played out in front of the Princess Royal in the Lowry’s rather fine Lyric Theatre were plenty.
Inevitably, musical stars created by ITV’s stable of talent shows dominated. But, to give them their dues, this year’s Britain’s Got Talent winner Jai McDowall and 2006 X Factor winner Leona Lewis really stood out. Lewis’ version of the Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash song Hurt and McDowall’s spine-tingling With Or Without You, accompanied by the Belgian Scala and Kolacny Brothers choir, stood head and shoulders above pop stars Cee Lo Green, Pixie Lott and former Pussy Cat Doll Nicole Scherzinger’s peddling of their latest singles - although Scherzinger redeemed herself later in a 25th anniversary tribute to Phantom of the Opera, flanked by past Phantoms.
Elsewhere, it was hard for the funnymen to compete with winningly familiar material in Kay’s links, but a crowd-pleasing turn from Omid Djalili and the micro-observations of Irish charmer Jimeoin almost trumped Bolton’s finest. Salford-born comic Jason Manford seemed unsure of himself, but fusilli-haired comedy pianist Tim Minchin shone within the constraints of the occasion, while veteran Mick Miller proved he could out-pun Tim Vine with a beautifully honed set, rich in one-liners.
The ‘variety’ quota of these evenings usually falls to the odd speciality act, a slot filled perfectly by free running-inspired acrobatic duo Base Berlin. But old school variety - spliced with a streak of new school iconoclasm - was also provided by the consummately-skilled magicians Penn and Teller, while this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit Boy With Tape On His Face hit the spot with his cartoonish brand of wordless physical comedy.
But, crucially for the success of the evening, the imported star hitters also delivered. After recovering admirably from a technical gaff caused by an overly tricksy stage effect, Barry Manilow proved he has the songs to overcome any onstage calamity, and headliner Tony Bennett - who never seems to go out of vogue - both stole the show and confirmed his position as one of the greatest interpreters of modern song with a wonderful closing one-two of Steppin’ Out With My Baby and How Do You Keep the Music Playing?
So a grab-bag of winning moments, then, rather than a cohesive programme of entertainment. And one year from its centenary, the Royal Variety Performance proves it is still a difficult nut to crack.