Ray Shell’s cabaret debut is a rollicking, gossipy, exuberant affair, zooming through musicals and pop hits from his glittery career. He’s the host with the most – flirting with every audience member, giving us his small secret asides (‘I haven’t told anyone this…. I’m serious!’) and getting us clapping and singing along.
The first half of the show is a quick-fire succession of hits, starting from his gospel roots, to Broadway, then his transfer over to the West End – plus his dabble in pop music. There’s a wealth of insider gossip and name-dropping here, with everyone from Meatloaf to Kate Bush being brought up, plus some great tunes – One Night Only and The Long and Winding Road are absolute standouts. The small set up (three backing vocalists and three musicians) is good but a little lacking – the four-part harmonies never quite have that ‘wow’ factor, and other than the incredibly funky bassist, the musicians didn’t quite blow me away. All focus is on Ray, and for the most part that’s fine – his infectious enthusiasm bowls you over and I found myself grinning from start to finish. Whether it was the fact that he wasn’t always singing songs that were his own (for example, songs from The Police, which he had originally sung backing vocals for), or just because he was just getting warmed up, this first half sometimes felt a little strained – slightly too high for his range, with notes cracking here and there, and the occasional tuning problem.
The start of the second half tells you that this is a whole new affair: he comes on stage with a tattered copy of his novel, Iced, and as he reads from it, we are launched into a whole section of his own work – songs that he himself has written, mainly from a show called White Folks, whose female lead also comes on stage to sing two songs for. The songs are great, and here we get the best use of the four-part harmonies, plus some belting leads from the leading lady. There’s less life story in this second half, and as such it’s a bit muddled, with Ray forgetting some of the segues, and the band are rendered slightly useless as a lot of these songs use backing tracks instead. An old friend from Children of Eden takes the stage for one number, with an incredible funk-infused version of Nature Boy – and his voice is absolutely spot-on, note-perfect – just as you’d expect from a West End star.
Miraculously, when Ray takes the stage again, there’s new life in his voice. For his final four songs, he is in his element, finally completely at ease with the melodies and with his own voice, using every part of his booming low notes and sweet, soft falsetto to wrangle emotion and credibility into every word. From the jovial Your Feet’s Too Big to powerful Not My Father’s Son, to the inevitable child-like wonder of his career-making Starlight Express, we see this West End star back on peak form – a glimpse of days past.