King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 25 November 2017
Big ensemble numbers, some high-kicking choreography and a clutch of stellar solo vocal moments ensure that Gang Show 2017 hits all the expectations for a grand night out. There’s plenty of meat in the script from director Andy Johnston, too, who knows exactly how to press the buttons of his young performers – although there are a couple of rather extended sketches where a more judicious editing process might have helped the pace.
Gang Show is proud of its heritage. And rightly so – it was the first proper junior amateur show around. Johnston has a keen eye for a big celebration and an even better ear for how to exploit it. So his opening number picks up on the That Could Be Me sequence from James Corden’s Tony Award intro from 2016. It’s a celebration of musicals, really, in which Matthew Knowles and Andrew Knowles find that they could – and should – be on stage with the Gang Show.
On the way, amidst excerpts from Les Mis, Oliver! and the rest, where Cordon was name checking the potential Tony nominees, Johnston’s mentions are of the other junior companies which have sprung up over recent years, from LYAMC, Forth Children’s Theatre and Captivate to the big professional school, MGA.
That sense of anything can happen on stage is brilliantly created in Imagination, featuring Lucy Cowie singing Believe, from Finding Neverland. Having ribbed the other companies around in the intro Johnson – and Gang Show dance director Louise Williamson – go on to show them how the manoeuvring of hundreds of people on stage should be done – with a selection of costumes to rival a Tony Award intro sequence.
The spirit of Gang Show lies in Variety with a mix of song, dance and comedy. In amongst the dance routines there is a quartet of comedy-driven numbers. While all find their laughs, not all are equal, however.
There’s no denying that Johnston knows the kind of humour that tickles the funny bones of younger audience members, so there’s no problems with pretty basic knockabout gags with plenty of repetition. It’s just that there is so much material here that not all of it needed to make it into the show.
There is also the matter that not all the comedy routines have been practiced to the same point of slickness that he dance routines have.
So while A Christmas Tale has strong elements, with its Nicola Sturgeon narrator, egotistical star (a great turn from Ailsa MacLean in Sparkle and Shine from Nativity) and a splendidly huffy Donkey, it needs a whole bag more pace and attention to details to get it fizzing as it might.
It’s a similar story for the obligatory second half take-off of the King’s panto – this year Cinderella. The piece is a solid vehicle for a trio of what could be incongruous numbers from La La Land, Mame and Trolls, but it doesn’t need all the story detail to work.
When the comedy absolutely has to work, however, it does so with magnificent results. In this case 50 Years On, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Guides joining the Scouts on stage. Edinburgh Gang Show was the first in the world to do so and is an event well worth celebrating.
The comedy is pitched just right, with a chorus of lads in dresses attempting to do the honours, only to be confounded by a band of guides who have no trouble in wiping the floor with the boys. It’s a real demonstration of how far we have come in the half century since the Guides first marched out onto the stage singing We’re in it Too.
When it comes to the singing, there a couple of numbers which make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, just by virtue of the quality of the performances. In Listen, Matthew Knowles absolutely nails I Dreamed A Dream from Les Mis, Connor Dickson makes a solid go of Hurricane from Hamilton, but Tatiana Honeywell takes it to another level again with Listen from Dreamgirls.
For a complete contrast in musical style, Cameron Kilgore brings a sustained maturity to MD Andrew Thomson’s down-tempo arrangement of Half A World Away by Oasis, with Stuart Simms taking a similar approach on Don’t Look Back in Anger. Both bring out the depths of the songs that are not always heard.
Then, of course, there is the dancing. The big ensemble numbers such as One Step Beyond – a medley of Madness numbers – set the standard high. Louise Williamson incorporates all abilities into her choreography and deploys the more skilled performers with judicious effect – you can see their precision and snap to the beat spread out in the dancers around them.
The big news this year is that Williamson has found an extra few dancers with real skill – and a couple with added acrobatic technique – and has had the audacity to employ them throughout the show.
Consequently the previously mentioned solo pieces have some particularly gorgeous backing routines while Act One closer, Applause, is a big piece of golden age musicals schmaltz, from Gershwin’s Stairway to Paradise to a couple of items from 42nd Street which, despite some hiccups with the set, provide solid song-n-dance routine pleasure.
There’s a spot of sadness in this year’s show too, as it commemorates the late Gordon T Blackburn, long time Gang Show director,who passed away in January this year. His idea for a comic sketch, Orchestra, is vividly brought to life, while the finale These are the Times, contains a recording of Gordon, mixed in with the live performance.
It’s a long Gang Show, but it is a great show with a lot of talent that needs giving its dues. As Andy Johnston closes his record-equalling fifteenth show as director (his 38th in total) his gang can be sure that they have done him proud.