The West End’s Nimax theatre group specialises in mainstream, light-hearted entertainment and occasionally programmes, amongst coach-party favourites like The Play that Goes Wrong, short-run musical-comedy tasters. Legends of Lockdown Live is a one-night-only variety show featuring a number of acts who found themselves gaining viral-level social media attention during the pandemic’s forced confinement, such as Austyn Farrell as ‘Quarantina Turner’, doing an energetic TikTok high-heeled rendition of ‘Proud Mary’ in his north London street which garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
The premise of creating a live event to celebrate the ingenuity and talent of the performers who ensured the-show-must-go-on whilst the theatres were dark is an appealing and potentially heartwarming concept. However, having gathered a congregation of theatre-lovers to rejoice in plenary once again, the offered entertainment needs to do more than be in the same room as its audience to succeed.
Legends of Lockdown Live felt rather like we were attending a conference of social media influencers exchanging tips and showing a little of their work with a few turns thrown in. Had it been an awards ceremony or a charity gala, the somewhat homespun production values and inconsistent casting would have been forgiven. But this was a show charging £30 per head in a West End theatre on a proscenium stage. It felt rather like being in the studio audience of the early audition rounds of Britain’s Got Talent but without the judges or host and paying for the privilege.
Indeed the biggest failing of this production was not to invest in a heavy-weight master of ceremonies who has the live production chops to anchor a series of acts of inevitably mixed quality. Cruise ship entertainment can be brilliant, even if cheesy, but it needs the host to drive the energy and adulation of the crowd. There is a reason Graham Norton, Ant & Dec and Claudia Winkleman are paid so well. The moments after performances that gave an insight into, for example, how Austyn Farrell managed to shoot these impressive dance numbers on an Enfield street, offered charming anecdotes of lockdown – even if they felt a bit like (good) breakfast TV moments. Nonetheless, to get the full entertainment value these stories provide, also like on breakfast TV, a Philip Scofield or Lorraine Kelly is called for. Instead we had Sooz Kempner and Kerry Boyne. Respectively the pair comprised a comedian who on the night showed the middling energy of limited rehearsal together with a young actress who stepped on her partner’s gags. Both flapped cue cards visibly to read canned lines – my kingdom for a teleprompter! Why didn’t they learn their lines and, more importantly, why didn’t the producers think it mattered?
Whilst Sooz had a few droll bon mots, she simply didn’t provide the energy or glue needed to propel and stick together this sort of revue. Her colleague, Kerry, has fewer than 500 Twitter followers, which makes me curious as to why she was chosen to guide us through a world of social media stars? In fact, I was unsure what role she was intended to serve on the stage at all?
Given that the producers had brought in some fringe comedy professionals like Naomi Cooper to do a turn in character as suffering Middle-Class Philippa (appearing entirely in-character and therefore a somewhat fabricated ‘legend of lockdown’, but nonetheless an entertaining bit on the pandemic experience) they could have invested in a top-notch MC to hold the show together and it’s a shame they didn’t.
Doing a chat piece with the producers of the Queer Talk Podcast was sort of interesting in a fringe session at a media conference kind of way, but had no variety show entertainment value. Again, I was returned to Breakfast TV Land despite it being 8pm amongst velvet-covered seats in a gilded auditorium and a £30 ticket price.
There is no question that the arts and artists suffered and endured greatly during lockdown and neither are close to having recovered. There is plenty of space for adulation and, sure, a bit of schmaltzy light-ent sensibility is fine too. Max Hodge’s reworded version of ‘I’m Here’ from Sondheim’s Follies hit the spot in its maudlin rage and torch-song charm. But what the producers of this show seemed to have failed to appreciate is just how much consummately professional work has gone on during the last year and is currently going on elsewhere in the country, despite the seemingly impossible obstacles. Are many in and around the theatre exhausted, frustrated, infuriated and terrified? Yes, of course – and this is the stuff of great comedy and cabaret around which humans can bond when such stories are finally enacted before or behind the footlights. But the holiness of a West End stage deserves nothing less than true commitment to please and profit the audience, without indulgence or excuse. Learning one’s lines imparts far more reverence for the crowd and craft than asking them directly to ‘be kind’ as the curtain rises.
The concept of coming together in-person to have a laugh and a sing-song to explore who and what captured the nation’s attention during the strange climate of the last year had potential. Some of the acts were entertaining, especially the more seasoned comedians like Naomi Cooper and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, and the back-stories of the performers were pleasantly heart-warming in an ITV kind of way. However, there was not a strong enough commitment to production professionalism as shown by the poor quality of the video projections and the lack of preparation or ceremonial skill of the hosts.
Review by Mary Beer
Hosted by Kerry Boyne & Sooz Kempner and featuring a virtual special guest appearance by Jackie Weaver. The show stars Seán Burke, Joe Carter, Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Naomi Cooper, Austyn Farrell, Lizzi Gee & Rufus Bateman, Rosie Holt and Rob Madge with Mufseen Miah & Spencer Cooper for Queer Talk Podcast.
Artists appearance subject to availability.
9th June 2021