SLO Sings For the King’s

Sep 10 2021 | By More

★★★★☆    Pure Theatre

Festival Theatre: Thurs 9 – Sat 11 Sept 2021
Review by Thom Dibdin

Southern Light Opera burst back onto the stage after the Covid hiatus in full celebratory mode with a portmanteau show of songs from its back catalogue which refuses to be obvious, while rounding off the night with a fanfare of show stoppers.

The temptation for such shows is to go all out for glory with a series of greatest hits. And, as it enters its 125th year, SLO certainly has more than a few of those. But the canny choice is to allow the evening to build, much as a musical itself would. And this a SLO show which is awfy canny in its opening approach.

The Trolley Song from Meet Meet me in St Louis. Pic Ryan Buchanan

Director Andy Johnston might not hold back from finale fever when it comes to the endings. But he, assistant director Louise Hunter and their team set off with a first act which works on several different levels.

For openers, it articulates the simple joys of being back on stage for the performers and of being in an audience for us in the auditorium. Feelings which resonate in this time of pandemic, but also in relation to the King’s theatre, for which the whole night is a fundraiser.

It’s Today from Mame speaks directly to the thrill of being on stage. “I know that this very minute has history in it, we’re here!” sings Toni MacFarlane and you couldn’t agree more. It is coupled with Show People from Curtains a celebration of the broad range of folk who long to do so.

Be Our Guest

Ten numbers later, Elspeth Whyte is reprising the big title number from Hello Dolly and as she sings “It’s so nice to be back home where I belong” you can’t help but agree – before a quick visit to Beauty and the Beast with the full company singing Be Our Guest in front of video director Gavin Scott’s surprisingly psychedelic backdrop for the number.

Lighting in Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof. Pic Ryan Buchanan

But there is something mournful here too. David Mitchinson’s take on You Are My Heart’s Delight from the Land of Smiles and, particularly, Nicola McDonagh’s performance of Far From the Home I Love from Fiddler on the Roof tug away at the idea of something lost and of an absence.

Neither number is an obvious choice. They take their place in the narrative of the first act as a way of reminding of the theatre element of musical theatre. Of course it is big and celebratory, all-singing and all-dancing – and a little bit saucy. But it can also take you to places which are not always comfortable, which touch on hidden emotions.

This feeling comes back into full focus in the last song of Act 1, with the whole company performing the finale of Titanic. Complete with a list of the names of those lost at sea projected onto the back cloth. An action which has clear resonances for the last year.

textured and nuanced

But really, the whole act is textured and nuanced in a way that only a company with such a strong back catalogue could achieve. Rebekah Lansley and John Bruce are compelling in their performance of I’ll See You Again from the Noel Coward operetta Bitter Sweet.

Some of the Dancers in Be Our Guest. Pic: Ryan Buchanan

Of course there are big numbers too. Elspeth Whyte with Once You Lose Your Heart and Tanya Williamson with Ribbons Down My Back ensure that their vocal instruments are given full reign in the wild space of the Festival Theatre auditorium.

Then there is the dancing. SLO and choreographer Louise Williamson – who also coordinated the costumes – have a stonking wee 12-strong dance troupe on the go, who subtly blend in and out of the action over the course of the evening. The whole company are nimble on their feet, but the dozen add that extra bit of lift and poise that isn’t always present.

It is not all perfect, it must be said. Maybe it was first night nerves but the opening numbers lacked the warmth and theatricality which came later, as did the connection between band, (under the musical direction of Crawford Moyes), and stage which felt disjointed in the early stages. Admittedly, these early numbers are particularly tricky as they also come early in their shows, when character is being established.

a distinctly five star tone

There are no such qualms about he second half, however. Between ensemble numbers from Brigadoon and Wild Grows The Heather to I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady and a Something Wonderful from The King and I that really is something wonderful, the evening takes on a distinctly five star tone.

Brigadoon. Pic: Ryan Buchanan

But it is in Get Me To The Church On Time, in which the company is led by a barnstorming Keith Kilgore and Scott Walker being properly tired and emotional, that you fully realise that every single number is a story in itself. These are songs which have enough presence to stand alone, apart from the original musical, and tell their own stories.

It all bodes very well for the future for SLO, which will be forced to relocated from its usual home at the King’s when it goes dark during the refurbishment which this production is raising money for. The company will have no problems filling the stage.

With plenty of space in the Festival Theatre for comfortable social distancing, there is no question that this night is a success on every level and one not to have missed. Just leaving the question of which song you will be singing on the way out of the theatre….

Running time two hours and 40 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT. Phone booking: 0131 529 6000
Thurs 9 – Sat 11 Sept 2021
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The full company in Oklahoma! Pic Ryan Buchanan


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Comments (1)

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  1. Scott says:

    Thanks Thom!

    Keith and I have been practicing being ‘tired and emotional’.

    Great to see you back in theatres and writing about the arts in Edinburgh!

    Keep smiling! 🙂