It could have been a bad omen for a large light entertainment event being held at the nautically themed Liner Hotel, tucked around the corner from Liverpool’s Lime Street Station, because Titanic the Musical was about to open at the nearby Empire Theatre. Thankfully though, there was never any danger of any entertainment icebergs looming large, as this Grand Summer Showcase was not only in the hands of some experienced crew members, it also had plenty of varied talent billed, so a fun and entertaining voyage through the evening looked assured. Not least as Captain Mark Ritchie was in charge as compere. An extra incentive for all those appearing was that the showcase was being covered by the Holiday and Cruise Channel - Sky Channel 284.
If you’re targeting the cruise market, the perfect way to start is with a colourful ensemble of high energy dancers - the EM Productions’ Dancers Viva Las Vegas opening routine set just the right tone. A flurry of feathers and some neat routines and it was on with a show boasting some 18 acts. The next act was a complete contrast - classically trained vocalist (mezzo soprano) Emmy Wilde, whose act came across as perhaps a little too serious for a light entertainment showcase. Save for the occasional movement, she was also fairly static on stage, but having performed at venues such as London’s Palladium, she took this appearance in her stride and impressed with her vocal range and professionalism. “I like to mix things up,” she told the audience, and she certainly did that.
In the first of two appearances during the evening, Scotland-based Paul Philips, in Roy Orbison guise, looked and sounded the part, and in true Big O style, never looked in danger of even breaking sweat. There’s not that many Orbison tributes on the circuit, so when you catch one, you want it to be a fitting homage to the great man. He’s near enough to the great man to please the fussiest Orbison fan.
Like Philips, guitarist/vocalist Pete Brill clearly has years of experience on the circuit. Dressed in a shirt fittingly festooned with guitar images, he rattled off some interesting covers with the confidence of an artist for whom this was just another day at the show business office. Having once played with Liverpool outfit The Searchers it was no surprise that their 1964 hit, Needles and Pins, was included, and how ever many gigs he’s played over the years - and I’m sure that’s a fair few thousand - he clearly still enjoys what he does. Brill is obviously best suited for older audiences, with long, fond musical memories.
Comedy duos tend to be either fabulous or really struggle at showcases. Smashed (Darren and Gareth), have certainly got all the ingredients to do well on the circuit, their knockabout style of irreverent humour is bound to be popular in the right venues. What they have on their side is variation, throwing all kinds of material in the act, ranging from singing and zany magic through to risqué audience participation, so that when something doesn’t work, the pace of their act means they can move swiftly onto the next part. Some sections felt a bit dated and unoriginal, but their energy and slickly executed buffoonery was, for the most part, quite infectious. The female volunteer picked here on the night didn’t look all that comfortable though with the adult material - a reminder that relying on the public to be an integral part of your act can be high risk.
Viewers of last year’s Britain’s Got Talent, would have recalled soprano Pippa Langthorne, impressing the judges and the nation with her vocals, especially when being accompanied by a crooning canine. Now that said pooch has taken early retirement, she is launching a singing career in her own right. Even if her set suffered by going down the medley route, there’s no doubting her talent, stage presence and confidence for a young performer. Whether or not she’s going to be hampered by always being known as the diva with the dog, only time will tell.
Last minute substitute act Laurence Sinclair was in many ways a blast from variety’s past - madcap, unpredictable, and probably certifiable. The kind of act that’s always hit and miss, Sinclair was mostly hit, cracking corny gags as he went about creating a surreal few minutes on stage. At times, he seemed quite happy just being in his own little funny, fantasy world - no audience required - but as it happened those present clearly warmed to him, recognising a likeable, talented eccentric when they see one.
Described as ‘classical crossover artist,’ local singer, Tom Spence, had the full support of the Liverpool audience from the minute he belted out his first note. In what, we were told, was his professional showcase debut, he looked a confident young performer during his opening cover of the crooning classic, Volare, and though that was to be one of just two numbers, showed plenty of potential. His TV debut, on BBC One’s North West Tonight programme went out to over a million viewers, so he’s clearly not afraid of a challenge. For those who find Jack Dee’s pace of delivery a tad too frantic, then Jimmy O, is your man. I’ve not seen the Wigan-based comic before so I’ve clearly been missing out. It’s not often you sit through a young comedian’s set without recognising more than a few jokes, but this was all original stuff, not just in material, but in style of performance too. At one point his delivery was so laboured, I was sure he’d nodded off mid-gag, but in reality, this was a master class in deadpan, cutting comedy.
Cheesier than a cheese factory in Cheddar Gorge, Steps tribute outfit Next Steps, had a fabulous line in OTT gold attire, decent harmonies and, of course, easy to follow dance moves. Guaranteed to get any venue singing along, the group members’ choreography was pretty ragged at times, and visually they’re hardly the ‘ultimate Steps tribute act,’ as the show programme claimed. But, are die-hard fans of the famous five going to care too much? In short, no, because they’re fun to watch and listen to.
After the break, the EM Productions’ Dancers having again stepped out confidently in a bright and breezy burlesque number, it was time for the production’s sound and lighting man to switch ‘hats’ and take to the stage as the opening act of the second half. Singer, guitarist and keyboard player Paul Stewart, having been in the business for over 10 years, unsurprisingly, has a wide repertoire to call upon. A really nice, mid-set cover of a James Taylor number was probably the musical highlight while his version of the much-covered Impossible Dream stood out too. It was impossible to think of how he could have included much more in his short, highly assured showcase set.
Sporting a jacket so loud even Max Miller would have refused to wear it, The Stage’s own Mark Ritchie took centre stage as a ‘turn’ in his own right for a short while, interviewing himself and sharing some cheeky banter with the audience. In demand as a singer at Deaf Society meetings around the country (only joking), he’s a consummate, experienced performer who can fine-tune his act to most audiences. Given his jacket, he could always add ‘human mirror ball’ to his range of talents.
At just 20, contemporary country rock singer Abi Bridgeman is surely set to make a big impression on the modern country music scene. One song choice was a rather plodding affair, but when she livened up the music she came into her element. She obviously isn’t interested in just trotting out all the old, familiar country classics, and if she stays inventive and cutting-edge, she’ll surely have a large fan base in no time at all.
On paper, skits of the new X-Factor judges panel would seem dodgy ground for any showcase organisers, given some pretty poor attempts in the past. But, slotted in here as a mystery act, the personalities presented - Louis Walsh (Peter Stewart), Britney Spears (Michaela Weeks), Gary Barlow (Dan Hadfield), David Walliams (Roger Green) and Simon Cowell (Andy Monk)- were not only parodied with real aplomb, but they actually looked dead ringers for those they were imitating, which is always a plus for look-a-likes! There was even a Pudsey (2012 BGT winner) lookalike - real name Toggle, a very young Sarah Wolverton taking a lead role as it were, as its handler. It could all have been rather embarrassing, but actually proved highly entertaining and gave the second half of the show a real lift.
Liz Monroe, resplendent in red on the night and hitting all the right notes, is a fine, entertaining sax-playing vocalist. Changing instruments mid-tune is a feat in itself, let alone being able to play at the consistently high standard she does. As good as she undoubtedly is, I’d struggle to watch her for too long as a solo act, but as part of a band she no doubt proves an invaluable and highly engaging addition.
Like Jimmy O earlier, Matt Edwards proved to be comedy gold. Manic, unpredictable and original, he stormed this showcase with one of the most original comedy sets I’ve seen for a long time. Cheekily extending his set well over time, he managed to cram in everything from a spot of ventriloquism through to a quick impression of Kate Winslet in Titanic, playing to the audience and drawing them into his weird, zany world. Only his final routine was uninspiring, the volunteer ‘ventriloquist’ being often seen and a bit tiresome after a while. That aside, a very impressive talent.
Southport-based guitarist/vocalist David Marshall certainly has fine voice. His choice of song on the night though was a bit maudlin, puncturing the feel good atmosphere created by Edwards. He has real gravitas as a performer, and clearly takes his performances very seriously, but some lighter fare would have been better late on the evening. I’ve never been clear why vocalists insist on tackling Nessun Dorma at showcases either. You have to be a sensational singer to bring the iconic operatic number off, and as impressive as he was, Marshall didn’t quite manage it.
You don’t see that many Kenny Rogers tributes around, but if you want to catch or book one, I’d heartily recommend the Paul Philips version. Having performed as Roy Orbison earlier, this was better, Philips looking the real deal from start to finish. He’ll have to sort out his mid-set wardrobe change though as fumbling around in a supermarket carrier bag for your next costume was a tad unprofessiona. Having transformed himself into the ‘next era’ Rogers in black, he looked and sounded eerily like the man himself. “Have guitar, will travel,” he told the audience when being interviewed by Mark Ritchie - being based in Scotland, he’s going to travelling a fair bit to gigs.
With the final band originally billed being ‘indisposed’ on the night, late substitute act Shbang, deserved some plaudits for stepping in at the last moment - stepping being the operative word as the trio had earlier performed as part of Next Steps. They rattled through all kinds of tunes from the 1980s, wearing costumes that looked like they had raided a dressing up box from a local infants school. A little shambolic at times perhaps, but they look well capable of instilling a party feel to most venues, especially among audiences with fond memories of the era they covered. All told then, this was a showcase with all the variety you could have hoped for. In Pippa Langthorne and Abi Bridgeman, it showcased two very different style of female vocalists, but each with considerable potential. Best of all though was that the bill featured two, great young comics in Jimmy O and Matt Edwards. The next time someone says to me, “there are no good young comics coming up,” I’ll think of their spots in Liverpool, and have a really good laugh.