I almost feel as though I ought to order a custom T-shirt online saying something along the lines of “I was at the first 2021 in-person event at the Royal Albert Hall”. There was a sense of normality: the rustling of sweet wrappers in the row behind, the people surreptitiously taking photographs of a concert they weren’t meant to be taking photographs of, and let’s not forget the woman who yelled at me whilst I was waiting to get out at the end and never bothered to say thank you when I made space for her self-entitled backside and pathetic ego, both about as wide as Galway Bay. (I’m still winning: I had to put up with her for seconds, while she has to live with herself.)
After the show, there was the twat who muttered some expletives at me for apparently getting in his way (I wasn’t impeding him in the slightest). There was also the stupidity of Transport for London, whose staff decided the usual platform for departing trains towards Wimbledon at High Street Kensington was “closed”, ordering everyone onto a different platform, only for a Wimbledon train to pull up alongside the usual platform a minute or so later, and promptly take off, leaving us plebs at the mercy of the District line “timetable” whilst we waited for the train we were told was the first train to depart to actually leave. And then there was the Earl’s Court crawl. If you know, you know. And for some reason, the bus indicator boards in my local area are largely out of service (oh, but there’s an app, don’t you know, but Transport for London don’t bother providing WiFi at bus stops).
This 150th anniversary concert was a very mixed bag indeed, deliberately attempting to encompass the broad variety of events at the Hall since 1871. Some of the content was more accessible than others. I managed to get my head around Professor Brian Cox’s scientific spiel, for instance. But for some reason Spice Girl Melanie C was given a script to read out that tried too hard to promote the Hall’s contributions to popular music, without mentioning the Hall’s previous use in the 1980s as the host venue for the Brit Awards, amongst other pop-related things. There was something about the elixir of something else – I tried to follow it but I couldn’t.
I liked Helen Pankhurst CBE’s contribution. The great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, key figures in the suffragette movement, she spoke eloquently about how the fight for equality, respect and decency goes on – there is still, for instance, a substantial pay gap, and considerably less than half of captains of industry and Members of Parliament are women. Charles Dance and Michael Sheen spoke, respectively, on the subjects of wartime remembrance and looking to the Hall’s future. At some point Claudia Winkleman said something about – wait for it – dance.
I’m not sure whether the music was accompanying the many video projections or the other way round: there was so much to look at in the Hall’s illustrious history and archive footage that much of the music, although pleasant and conducted with pizazz by Nicholas Dodd, felt somewhat secondary. There was an amusing moment when percussion members of ‘Albert’s Orchestra’ (presumably assembled especially for the 150th anniversary celebrations) started mimicking the sounds of table tennis balls being struck by a bat, a boxer hitting a punchbag and a basketball being bounced. A nod to the BBC Proms seasons had the National Youth Choir of Great Britain bobbing up and down to whichever bit of Fantasia on British Sea Songs the Proms audiences bob up and down to (no prizes for guessing my level of interest in the Proms).
Overall, then, an interesting evening in which I learnt a fair bit about the Royal Albert Hall – and I’m someone who has taken a guided tour of the building a few times over the years. It’s been used for everything from boxing matches to ballet in the round. They are, financially, in the shit at the moment, but this felt like the first step in a very long and winding road to some sort of recovery.
Stephen Clark (1961-2016) is best known to me for writing the book and lyrics for the stage musical adaptation of the motion picture Love Story, which became one of many London transfers from the Chichester Festival Theatre. The opening number has the lyric, “What can you say about a girl / A 25-year-old girl who died?” During the funeral of Jenny (Emma Williams), various characters talk about her life, and the salient events are dramatized. Of working class, Jenny falls in love with Oliver (Michael Xavier), who is eventually disinherited by his wealthy family because they disapprove of him marrying for love rather than financial gain (I’m simplifying here, but ultimately not by a lot). He therefore goes off to law school, with Jenny working to make sure the bills are paid. But she is later diagnosed with a terminal illness.
And yet, there is some hope and even some humour in the show, which despite its tragic content manages to be uplifting and positive as well as plumbing some serious emotional depths. The Boy Next Door, which Clark collaborated with Rob Fowler on, is in a similar vein, dealing with the effects and consequences of someone dying long before their time, though Fowler put the project on the shelf after Clark’s own untimely death. It is no secret that Fowler met his current partner, Sharon Sexton, when they started working together on Bat Out of Hell the Musical. When lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Sexton and Fowler (as they styled themselves), deprived of the remainder of a touring production of Mamma Mia!, took to performing online concerts – and they, like so many other performers, faced teething problems getting various technological gadgets to do what they were supposed to do.
Some of the songs that have become known to their fanbase, such as ‘Delight’, ‘Sign’ and ’Shadows’ (the last having been retitled in The Boy Next Door as ‘Right Where You Want Me’) appeared repeatedly in their series of lockdown concerts, and then in a subsequent limited edition double album. It may have taken a global pandemic to make it happen – The Boy Next Door was given another lease of life, with more songs and further refinements to the story as a whole. The variation in tempos and musical styles gives The Boy Next Door the edge over Love Story, which had too many songs that sounded more or less the same as one another.
In a concert read-through format, with only an hour to condense a full two-act show, it was admittedly rather difficult to keep track of events in the plotline, which made me grateful for having had the opportunity to sit through a whistle-stop tour of this meaty story twice over. Boy (Liam Ross Mills), not to be confused with the title character, The Boy Next Door (Sam Cassidy), who goes by Dan (but you really can’t just call a musical Dan) is a teenager who ends up pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, more than happy to leave home to do so. A major tragedy in the family hits those who remain hard, and much of the show appears to take a look at how the different characters work through loss, bereavement and grief. It’s difficult, it’s messy, and it’s very, very human. I suspect a full production will require a ‘trigger warning’.
The concert ended abruptly, so as not to reveal quite how the various strands and subplots are resolved by the show’s curtain call – or, indeed, if they even are resolved. There weren’t any discernible big song and dance numbers: in place of ‘showstoppers’ are musical numbers that drive forward the narrative in the way the country music songs tell a tale. Sister (Jessica Cervi) enjoys a more amicable relationship with Mother (Sharon Sexton) than Boy – some ‘normal’ names for characters wouldn’t go entirely amiss.
What we do know is that the show has more than one ‘critical incident’, a sudden and unexpected event that has a major and permanent effect on the characters, and therefore, the storyline itself. I suspect an ending not dissimilar to the final number in the Broadway show Next to Normal: “Day after day, wishing all our cares away / Trying to fight the things we feel / But some hurts never heal / Some ghosts are never gone / But we go on, we still go on”. Being a semi-autobiographical piece, there might well be a ‘to be continued’ element by the time the show reaches curtain call. It’s certainly a story worth telling, and I’ll be keeping an eye out to see where this intense but thoughtful show goes next.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.