The annual West End Heroes variety show, in aid of Help for Heroes, is a chocolate box filled with treats: dance, music, theatre, military prowess and even magic! Sunday evening’s gala saw stars of stage and screen come together with the armed forces to produce an evening of rousing fanfares, parades, glittering musical performances and stories of breathtaking courage and overcoming adversity.
Compère Christopher Biggins (credits include Porridge, Poldark and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!) showed why he is the country’s favourite pantomime dame with his sparkling wit, delightful affability and game attitude: his flying entrance as a rotund Lumiere’ chandelier from Beauty and the Beast, and turn as one of the Bluebells’ singers (an Andrews Sisters swing act), were particular highlights. Along with his exquisitely glittery jackets, darling…
Accompanying the professionals and military musicians, the Central Band of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Air Force Squadronaires, under the batons of Squadron Leader Piers Morrell and MD Stuart Morley, played with energy and verve throughout. Despite coming from a different heritage of band repertoire (marching/military music) they pulled off the big West End numbers brilliantly. A special note goes out to the auxiliary percussionist, whose dance moves were impeccable!
The night opened with a medley from Elf the Musical, which will play at the Dominion Theatre from the end of this month. It will be a Christmas treat for sure, with Ben Forster looking particularly promising as lead Buddy the Elf. Later on, Mazz Murray brought down the house with her feisty rendition of Waterloo from Mamma Mia, and after the interval we were blessed with the the astonishing vocal talents of John Owen Jones, currently starring as the Phantom in Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Other stand-out West End performances came from Bradley Jaden, currently playing Enjolras in Les Miserables, and Rachel John, singing the stunning ‘Coloured Woman’ from one of my favourites – Memphis.
The audience was also treated to performances from hidden talent: the Heroes choir, conducted by West End Heroes’ fantastic Musical Supervisor Stuart Morley, is composed of people who work backstage at the theatres. They sang Whistle Down the Wind beautifully. The Royal Marines Corps of Drums were very impressive musically. Their drum accompaniment to the West End Heroes Choir’s powerful rendition of ‘Once We Were Kings’ from Billy Elliot The Musical was especially powerful, sending a shiver down my spine. The Heroes’ dancers, choreographed by Matt Flint, were also excellent.
Undaunted by the professionals, the military performers stepped up to entertain: the Colchester Military Wives Choir, despite perhaps some initial nerves, got everyone clapping along to ‘Don’t Stop Believing’; and Squadron Leader Matthew Little’s version of ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ from Love Never Dies highlighted why he is an RAF musician of choice. Most humbling and touching, however, was ex-servicewoman Maurillia Simpson’s ‘His Eye is On the Sparrow’, which left not a dry eye in the house. Simpson, who served in Iraq three times, was injured while stationed in Germany. She was rehabilitated at Help for Heroes’ facility at Headley Court, and has gone on to compete with the Paralympic Team GB. Maurilla’s story and performance was the real gem in this treasure trove of delights.
Packed with energy, life and light, and all for a fantastic cause, West End Heroes is hard to beat. I won’t miss it next year.
By Emma Slater