The National Lottery's Big Night of Musicals

The National Lottery
AO Arena, Manchester

The National Lottery's Big Night of Musicals

It is an understatement to say live entertainment has had a rough time in recent years. Theatres emerged from lockdown to find a cost-of-living crisis has reduced the income households have available for a night out. COVID turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving and some audience members have become so unaccustomed to crowds, there are reports of panic attacks in venues.

The National Lottery, which already supports arts projects and theatres, is now offering some practical and very generous support to attract hard-hit audiences back to live entertainment. Volunteers and lottery players, able to produce proof of purchase of a ticket, are entitled to claim admission to The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals for no more than the cost of the booking fee. The purpose is clear: if this doesn’t get folks out of their houses and back to live entertainment, nothing will. To add to the appeal, the show is recorded for television broadcast to remind TV viewers of the excitement of live entertainment.

There may be a generational aspect to how The National Lottery, or indeed charities in general, are regarded. Ever since Live Aid, governments have used charities such as The National Lottery to justify their callous inaction. Recall when studying social policy at school, the standard answer given by teachers to the question why the welfare state was developed was that charities ultimately could not satisfy the needs of enough people, yet now, they are often the only source of funding available. Ah well, that’s progress—or regression.

Musicals are often regarded as a ‘gateway drug’ for live entertainment. The mixture of rousing tunes and razzle-dazzle of showbiz glamour appeals to people who might be daunted by drama or entertainment they regard as too highbrow. Certainly, the programme for The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals could be included under a dictionary definition of ‘crowd pleasing’: live performances from 13 West End and touring musicals.

The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals is being filmed for television broadcast, so the live event is an odd combination of spontaneity and slick showbiz. From time-to-time, master of ceremonies Jason Manford breaks off to record links for the TV broadcast which sound downright weird in the live environment. Manford is too warm a presenter to treat the live audience as just props for the TV broadcast and regularly involves them in his remarks: "there’s a woman here actually wearing a probation tag." It is to be hoped the moment when Manford is upstaged by members of the Southend Mencap Music School expressing their appreciation for the Lottery’s support makes it into the TV broadcast.

Regular theatregoers will be aware start and finish times of shows are at best advisory, but The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals runs with rare precision. In the manner of an old-style TV show, Johnny, the warm- up act, and DJ Freight Train carefully rehearse the audience on when to cheer, clap and (corny but true) put on the complimentary sunglasses to make the greatest impression on TV. If the show fails to be a rousing success, it will not be their fault.

The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals is staged at the AO Arena in Manchester and Manford cheerfully promotes the local area, bringing on members of Salford’s Pendleton School of Theatre to form a backing choir for his performance of "From Now On". At the risk of sounding both parochial and ungrateful, it seems a shame the opportunity is not taken to promote some of the musicals from the region in which the event is staged. In the last season, The Royal Exchange, Octagon Theatre Bolton, Hope Mill and The Lowry all staged home-grown musicals, but none is represented here tonight. It cannot be an issue of demand or quality—The Book Thief has barely closed in Bolton and is already scheduled to tour to Coventry and Leicester.

Although the show is a celebration of musical theatre, the sheer size of the venue pushes it towards the atmosphere of a rock concert. The last time I saw We Will Rock You, the production felt distinctly underpowered, yet the company’s opening number certainly rises to the challenge of filling the AO Arena. It is eerie to see the entire arena glowing with pinpricks of light from mobile phones held aloft during the number from The Bodyguard.

The staging is challenging. After a number of musical anthems, the selection from Les Misérables is not a rousing showstopper but the intimate "On My Own". There is the coup of "My Shot" from Hamilton being performed outside London for the first time (and leaving some patrons unfamiliar with hip hop a bit bemused) and Michael Ball’s birthday tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber. The cast of Ain’t Too Proud have the advantage of performing a Motown medley and it has been scientifically proven there is no finer style of music.

Asked to sum up the impact of musicals, it is easy to fall back on Noël Coward’s observation it is strange how potent cheap music is. But one recalls when challenged about pandering to audience expectations by playing what could be regarded as a ‘greatest hit’, musician Jarvis Cocker responded, "I don’t care—it’s a good song." Which sums up the appeal of The National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals: good songs with a wide appeal, performed marvellously with no ambition other than to give the audience a bloody good night out.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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