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The Royal Variety Performance 2022 (Royal Albert Hall)

(1st December 2022)

The monkey’s first ever visit to see the show live, though of course it watches most years on television. Being “there” is a quite different experience, however.

First, you have to arrive at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start time, bring photo ID (not that anyone checked) and comply with a page of A4 “security” rules plus a “black tie” dress code. They don’t mess about on this one.

There’s a complimentary - immaculately produced - programme in a slipcover on each seat (photos above - the RVP press office alas didn't respond for other photographs at time of publication) and for those whose tickets are not lost in the post (guess who’s) those are specially designed as well.

It does feel oddly relaxed in reality. The celebrities in the audience take the front few rows, everyone else is there for a fun night, some more partisan towards particular stars than others as the evening progresses.

About 15 minutes before the scheduled start the orchestra strikes up an overture and we watch the arrival of the royal couple – their Royal Highnesses The Earl and Countess of Wessex and Forfar - on video screens, the footage probably that used in the TV broadcast.

There is then a long wait for them to enter the auditorium (long queue for the “ladies” we assume) but the British Army entertain by following the curve of the stage until turning at a point to line up on the horizontal with the three young choir boys for the National Anthem, conducted by an officer standing in the stalls.

Sitting as close to the stage as the monkey was, the noise of marching was noticeable, along with the din of the back curtain rising and falling on demand. It also had a good view of the autocue used by some acts and not others, and it was able to note bits cut, phonetic spellings and simple errors, “goggle search engine” anyone?

Host Lee Mack arrived on stage already tense from clinging onto a narrow ledge built into the moving podium of a magic trick by the Ehrlich Brothers to open the show on an illusion. That those more than halfway along the auditorium could see it all was a little unfortunate, but interesting for magic fans of course.

For the rest of the evening, Mack let flow a range of material, some aimed at the Royal Box, more at the German World Cup team eliminated as the show was live. A rather curious attempt at magic probably won’t make the TV broadcast (nor will several other sequences, a few cued up but ignored anyway) but some ad-libs will no doubt. Sadly, his brilliant tannoy message to bring the audience back in after the interval will also not be featured.

Easier to group by, er, variety than running order, an ensemble from the current West End cast of “Cabaret” at the Playhouse Theatre bid us “Wilkommen” as only that song can, many of those not actually in the number taking cabaret tables behind the action. Later, the cast of “Newsies” previewed what a high-octane dance show it will be. Whether the book can carry it we will find out when the show opens later this month.

First singer of the night was Eurovision runner-up Sam Ryder, with his winning song "Space Man" in a new arrangement. Rita Wilson and Gregory Porter paired up for a classic, while Nile Rogers and Chic brought the house down with fan applause.

Ellie Goulding’s “Fields of Gold” with violin accompanists was also richly received, a song the monkey has never been keen on given a memorable rendition. Likewise, George Ezra’s “Sweetest Human Being Alive” is as pleasant as the sentiment.

At the younger end, just 19 year old Becky Hill endeared herself to everybody as her very obvious nerves were overcome and she took flight in the specialness of the moment. “Remember”? We won’t forget to watch out for her in future.

By contrast, Fatma Said’s London debut singing “O mio babbino caro” seemed to leak a little confidence as the end became breathier after a strong start.

Not lacking confidence, Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and The Lighting Seeds, plus children and guests gave the new “Three Lions” a rendering of no interest to the monkey but raucous enough to stop a few snoozers around Harrods. A little comedy with Lee Mack just extended the sequence.

Moving on to the comedians, Omid Djalili was easily the biggest hit of the night, far more delivered than can make the television edit and surely a candidate not only to present the show next year, but as Prime Minister for all the common sense among the humour.

Every year, one comedian also scores a breakthrough. This year Masie Adam has to be it. Self-effacing, pouring out her holiday tale to an enthralled audience, the lady is far deeper than her numerous panel show appearances lead TV viewers to believe.

Also familiar from television, Al “The Pub Landlord” Murray’s short set began on the aisle near the monkey before moving to a small pub counter set up on stage for no real reason except to draw a revolting pint. Sadly, all the material was old and familiar, and the main joke was used by him in 2017 at Wimbledon’s pantomime. Time to change the barrel, perhaps.

“Britain’s Got Talent” host Simon Cowell proved the perfect gentleman (mishap with the Golden Buzzer aside) introducing this year’s winner Axel Blake and giving him a reassuring “thumbs up” from the side of the stage. Blake acquitted himself well in a short slot, finding some material to match the slightly unusual audience.

Speciality acts were three this year, two circus and one magic. Already mentioned is the Ehrlich Brothers show opener, but later a solo spot allowed them to perform an illusion the monkey saw at Wembley back in August. Once again, sightlines stymied their efforts at concealment, but their professionalism and showmanship were appreciated by all.

Renowned for similar, Cirque Du Soleil gave us an extract from their 2023 Royal Albert Hall show “Kurios,” involving stacked chairs balanced on a dinner party table. A standard circus idea, and the monkey was pleased to note the use of a safety harness at height – infinitely preferable to a circus performer losing a career or, even worse, loved ones losing the performer.

Simpler, and easily the monkey’s favourite performance of the night, aerialist sisters Isabella and Daniela Munoz Landestoy of Gifford’s Circus take to the air with their hair (not a typo) to Kate Dimbleby’s stunning vocal of classic “Both Sides Now” for unforgettable aerial feats of courage and beauty.

Equally moving, the tribute to those performers who have passed this year was right up to date and ensured they will be remembered.

Rounding off the night Andrew Lloyd Webber, Gary Barlow, Gareth Malone and the youngsters of the London Choir paid tribute to our late Queen with a song she had been known to quote since it was written for her Diamond Jubilee. “Sing” brought the hall, cast and nation together to close the evening on a high.

A few minutes wait for the Royal Box party to reach the car park first, then a walk among many other black-tie gentlemen and stunningly attired ladies to the tube for the best dressed carriage ride home ever, perhaps.

Quite an experience and one the monkey hopes to repeat if the opportunity arises. Meanwhile it has done a little to raise funds for the retirement of those who have given us so much pleasure over the years. A worthwhile thought to end on.

4 stars.

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