It’s been over two hundred days since our theatres were forced to close as a result of the global pandemic, and in that time we’ve seen all manner of attempts to keep theatre alive online. From streams on YouTube to play readings over Zoom, the ingenuity of the creative sector has never been more evident, and just when we thought we’d seen everything that was possible, the newly launched Theatre Channel brings us a completely new kind of online offering.
Falling somewhere between theatre and music video, Adam Blanshay Productions and London’s popular Theatre Café have joined forces to create this ten-episode homage to musical theatre, while showcasing the immense talent of the West End. Each episode comprises a series of musical theatre songs performed by West End stars, and if episode one, released on Friday, is anything to go by, we’ve got plenty to look forward to.
The Theatre Café on St Martin’s Lane takes centre stage, the songs are recorded in a specially created studio in the basement, while the building itself provides the backdrop to each number. This first episode is appropriately entitled ‘Welcome to the Café’ and introduces us not only to the concept, but a quartet of singers known as the Café Four (Alyn Hawke, Emily Langham, Sadie-Jean Shirley and Alex Woodward) who will be our ensemble in every episode.
They open this episode with Kander & Ebb’s notoriously tricky ‘Coffee (In A Cardboard Cup)’ while showing off The Theatre Café’s fabulously stagey takeaway cups. Having the first number led entirely by the ensemble isn’t just a nod to big-scale musicals, it seems to also set an important tone; The Theatre Channel isn’t just about the big names that it will feature, it’s about lifting up the entire industry.
Unlike many of the other online offerings we’ve seen, The Theatre Channel works on a system where you purchase an episode (currently priced £12) and then it’s yours to keep forever. Instead of theatre being a one-off event, it becomes a piece of history to own, and there’s something rather appealing about that. The line-up for Welcome to the Café means that there’s no question that you’ll want to watch over and over again, and episode two, a Halloween special, is already on sale.
Kander & Ebb feature again as Lucie Jones gives us a sumptuously sultry ‘Maybe This Time’ while ‘Let it Sing’ from Matt Henry MBE feels nothing short of joyous, and Tarinn Callender’s ‘On Broadway’ seems to transport us to another time and place entirely.
Jenna Russell’s ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ will leave viewers at home hoping that Marianne Elliott decides to revive Company in the West End, casting Russell as Joanne. As a massive Little Shop of Horrors fan, it was an utter delight to watch Carrie Hope Fletcher and Oliver Ormson take on ‘Suddenly Seymour’ and if Fletcher hadn’t already been cast in the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, I’d have been hoping to see this pair on stage together for the full show.
Jodie Steele was the only performer to venture outside the café, and on to the roof! Steele’s performance of ‘Heaven on Their Minds’ is stunning, and not just in terms of vocals, the whole sequence looks like something we’d get in a professional music video. The Theatre Channel has successfully elevated online ‘theatre’ to a standard that we haven’t seen elsewhere; director and choreographer Bill Deamer, and Musical Supervisor Michael England, have really created an entirely new concept which has been beautifully shot and edited by Ben Hewis.
We all miss theatre, and until the West End is back fully open, we’ll continue to accept that nothing can truly replace it. But, in the meantime, The Theatre Channel is offering us something never seen before, and with the promise of more to come. With The Theatre Café as an ideal backdrop, The Theatre Channel may just be the best online theatre offering yet.