Blackburn International Entertainment Agency Showcase 2011

Published Thursday 23 June 2011 at 15:09 by Mark Ritchie

Here we enjoyed a must-see showcase for anyone involved in selling the case of UK acts on the cruise scene to American clients and others. A scintillating big screen set-up, accompanied by a thumping soundtrack set a suitable corporate tone as the guests gathered. The Barry Robinson Orchestra and the stage crew all proved quite an asset here, with adequate time allotted for sound checks, the links and the fills appeared almost seamless.

Compere Steve Walls is often in demand for such showcase events and the young man I forecast some time ago would be a natural successor to Tufty Gordon, as first choice for such events, is still doing his stuff. Like Gordon, Walls is an all-round entertainer and more of an expert player at the show business game than most.

Bass singer Philip Browne is a former bus driver who scored immediately when he started turning up for auditions at West End musical casting sessions. Bedecked with a trilby, which was set at a jaunty angle, Browne knows his business and, with offerings from the Lion King as well as a Barry White segment, Browne gave a great account of himself. Browne’s own take on the ultimate bass singers’ song, Old Man River, which helped make Paul Robeson famous, was stirring stuff indeed.

Glamorous solo violinist Simone Welsh has the steady and assured look of a cruise ship/big stage regular. The comfortable feel of a real professional was further enhanced by some stunning arrangement’s, including a version of Loch Lomond, which this superbly talented Glaswegian sang with what can perhaps best be described as a degree of sweet pathos.

Clever comedy conjuror Pete Firman has benefited greatly from much recent TV exposure alongside Jason Manford and Justin Lee Collins. This is twice in the space of just a fortnight that this reviewer has become part of someone’s act, but Firman’s stock in trade is audience participation comedy and this smooth young operator really does have quite a future on this showing.

I have to admit that the Simon Cowell TV talent vehicles have laregly passed me by, as I am normally out either performing myself or watching professional acts in action. The whole hullaballoo that was G4 is not at the top of my list of showbusiness knowledge, but one of the quartet’s number was on stage here presenting his solo act. Jonathan Ansell is a quite remarkable tenor with a range that wouldn’t have shamed Mario Lanza himself. Ansell looks special to me and his image and cabaret skills surely are deserving of a suitable television vehicle of his own.

Speaking of Simon Cowell talent shows, next came last year’s Britain’s Got Talent finalist Paul Burling who, we are told, has a lot more telly coming up. Burling could have done with a line in gags to establish himself on stage on the night at the Bush, but the voices are a mix of the contemporary and old telly stuff. The biggest compliment that can be paid is that he doesn’t have to tell us who he is doing. There was something for everyone here and I loved Burling’s Harry Hill sketch.

I have seen better examples of acts trying to capitalise on the present popularity of Frankie Valli and the Jersey Boys sound than Definitive Valli. From their ill-matching stage suits and footwear, to their sombre look on stage, something wasn’t quite right here. Suffice it to say, I was more impressed with the singing/harmony ability then the presentational skills.

After a welcome interval, it was time to meet more X Factor people, in the shapes of two brothers from Middlesbrough, who go by the name of Journey South. These guys have terrific voices and displayed some fine vocal harmony ability. The problem here was that, like many acts of this type, Journey South are caught between a rock and a hard place image-wise. In my view, Journey South don’t seem to know if their collective pitch is as a cabaret act, or as pop-stars. Also two words in conclusion, which that may just help these bonny brothers, shoe polish.

The cruise business is apparently chock-a-full of mind-readers at the moment, but the big screen on stage at the Bush gave an idea of what Marc Spellman could look like on the small screen. The camera loves Spellman and his bamboozling line in patter indicates that here is an enormous star in the making. This is a 21st-century take on a type of entertainment which goes right back to the days of music hall. All strangely appropriate within this historic venue.

Tenors Unlimited are three guys billed as The Rat Pack of Opera and a version of the Sting composition When We Dance, sung entirely in Italian, really was a little bit special. Tenors Unlimited have the lot, from sheer charisma, to a truly original idea. Here we have tenors with attitude and a strong sense of fun. With this level of stage presence, their show is surely going to be a massive hit in front of any true cabaret audience.

Already said to be achieving a great deal as a cruise ship head-liner, Siobhan Phillips is in my view the greatest undiscovered British star of her generation. Phillips in full flight really makes for compelling listening and the comedy patter puts me in mind of the great Marti Caine, while self-penned songs at the piano are sure to draw comparisons between Phillips and Victoria Wood. The reported regular standing ovations at sea speak for themselves. The only thing missing is someone from British television land to do the right thing and make this lady the next big thing. So, come on you television executives, why not venture outside the comedy clubs and the student union bar and find some real talent.

Closing out the first evening’s show was a delightful comedy string quartet, who go by the name of Graffiti Classics. This two male/two female act gave us nautical ditties and light classics with a fun approach. These performers probably have more than enough to fill their own cabaret set in cruise ship theatres, given their strong visual comedy image. Highbrow music finds some kind of frankly odd fusion with visual comedy for those who choose to smile their way around classical music.

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