Alone Together
Michael Ball

Singular Sensations

Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Review by Marie Thomson

 One, moment in his presence and you can forget the rest

Act One

Saturday 2nd of October 2004 and it is with great excitement and a good deal of trepidation that I take my seat in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Excitement because like so many people I have had my fingers crossed for the last three years hoping that Michael Ball might one day return to this wonderful piece of work. The trepidation?.....Well to say I loved the original format of alone together doesn't go anywhere near touching it really. I was completely enamoured with the show when I first saw it and I have literally watched the video at least once a week since it was released. So by now I have become very fond of the nameless character in the original presentation; he was a living, breathing being with personality and flaws. And therein lies my problem. Would this adaptation be so radically different it would alter the way I felt about the original? Would the character still be there at all? Could this be the first time I came away from a show of Michael's disappointed?

Jason Carr appeared first and took his place at the piano. He began with an introductory piece aptly based around the title song. Then the performer (Michael) appeared to rapturous applause. We start with Don't look at me and the first section of songs is pretty faithful to the 2001 version. Except right from the beginning the performer is far more animated than in the original, his gestures bigger (I suppose due in part to having a bigger space to fill) but more than that, he is interacting with his audience, feeding off their reaction to him. I've been trying to think of how to best describe what I mean, the only way I can say it is....

When watching the original (even from live in the theatre) it was like the performer was behind a perspex screen. You could see and hear him but he wasn't giving much away. The songs were being conveyed to the audience but there wasn't much direct contact with them because if there had been, that would have destroyed some of the ambiguity of the piece. In the original it was important for the songs to do the work and for the audience to make their own minds up about what they were seeing without too many hints from the performer. This time he was using the audience reactions to the songs he was singing, so in some ways the audience became part of the overall show. The costume is different, the jeans have gone the performer is smartly dressed in a dark jacket and trousers a white shirt, black shoes and a leather belt. Michael’s hair is longer than at the Donmar Warehouse. Whether this indicates that some time has passed or it is just coincidence I don't know for sure.

It is difficult to know the best way to start this report so I'll just follow Michael's lead. After the first section we had Do Re Mi. You know the line, “Let's start at the very beginning [clever]............when you sing you begin with Do Re Mi”. The "mi" transposes into the dud dud dud dud dud introduction to One and after remarking how terrifying it was to be up on stage singing in a show entitled Singular Sensations we had a fantastic performance of the song in which the performer made full use of his audience’s admiration for him.

Where or when was next.... we didn't get Blue this time, perhaps this showed that the performer had managed to let go of some of those memories. It's straight on to Padam. The performer starts the song sitting on the piano (he generally made more use of the piano as a prop this time around). Up until this point my familiar character from the original version was not quite so easy to spot, but from this moment on he was there, almost as if the performer had stopped for a time to look again at his past.

Many of the songs in this next section tug on the heart-strings to say the least; Little Pal and Mother to name but two. Little Pal couldn't have been more realistic if there had been an actual child on stage.

Some of these songs were in keeping with the sombre mood of the original production. The performer actively used signals in many of them, for example in I've Got No Strings by the time the first line has been sung the character has gestured in turn in the direction of both the lights representing his parents. There is no second guessing this time. The performer has made his opinion very clear. In Stairway to Paradise there are no huge steps taken forward towards the end of the song, perhaps indicating that the performer no longer felt the need to climb. It is very difficult to know if you are over analyzing everything but it's very hard not to!

As the performer lit up a cigarette at the beginning of The Best of Times there were some very audible tut tut tuts from a section of the audience. Again Michael used this moment to great effect. He smiled knowingly for a second then fixed a defiant look in the area of the tutting and delivered the first line of the song “The best of times is now/What's left of summer but a faded rose“ (as if to say, why worry). The first act came to an end with There's no Business like Showbusiness sung, if at all possible, even more slowly than at the Donmar, before it gathered speed to the magnificent end of act one.

Act Two

The medley content was the same as the original but the songs were sung in a much lighter manner. The performer is again far more spirited this time round, far more confident. This is shown in the way he sings the songs and plays with the material. In On the Aitchison Topeka and the Santa Fe the character is not bent forward arms aloft trying to keep his balance but he is lent forward, hands on knees, solidly stood in position. When we get to the 'Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh' bit the middle 'oh's are replaced by notes on the piano and the performer pretending to pull the train whistle in time with the music. In I've Got Rhythm, the performer stands arms outstretched and after the “Will I have rhythm... will I have music" lines he reinforces the beats by clicking the fingers of his outsretched hands. I didn't feel the medley became as dark as it progressed this time and almost to prove it, the performer remains standing and doesn't end up on he knees in defeat as before.

It always astounds me that Nice Dream and Solitude can be sung so beautifully so soon after the medley. I'd still be backstage hooked up to the nearest oxygen cylinder myself. However beautifully sung they were. The character again sits on the floor stage right with only a bottle of water and a navy blue towel for company. The bow tie left over from the medley is still removed prior to Solitude but the jacket stays on this time as if to show the performer is more settled now and not feeling as vulnerable as the first time we met him.

The next section of She Touched Me, You're Just in Love and Yes My Heart are very humorous and had the audience laughing out loud in places. One minute we are laughing along with the proceedings and then in a split second we are in the middle of what must be the most heartbreaking section of the show. This is a mark of how good a performer Michael is. There is an extra line of direct speech to the audience, telling us that love can be great but it can also take you on a rollercoaster when it all goes wrong. Remind Me, I Wish I Could Forget You, What Now My Love, and the soul destroying How could I lose you are the songs in question. During these songs the world could have ended outside and we'd have been none the wiser. The performer (and of course Michael) had the audience in the palm of his hand.

Some critics have said that the intensity of the original show had been lost because the Haymarket space was bigger than at the Donmar Warehouse. I don't completely agree with that. I think this section proved that had the material been presented in exactly the same way as it was performed at the Donmar, it would have worked equally as well at the Haymarket. Yes the space is bigger but being surrounded by scaffolding and bare walls only echoed his loneliness. It's as much the way the material has been approached this time that has opened up the performance. The original version found the character in a cynical, insecure and angry frame of mind. This version finds him full of confidence and contented; he's moved on and although he is still thinking of his past when he sings the material, he is singing with much more conviction.

Life on Mars has the character recounting all the injustices, rejections and the futile waste of people, resources and emotions that he'd witnessed throughout his life. I don't know if the bar effect had been acquired from the Donmar for the fortnight but it was worth it being there, if only for the time the performer is sat motionless in front of them alone in the darkness except for the glimpse of light falling on his head. This was a very powerful image and it gave the impression of a lonely figure lost in thoughtful contemplation before he recovers to sing Over my Head. There is no Glory Goes (perhaps more thoughts and fears the performer no longer wasted time worrying over) so it's Alone Together next. It begins from this seated position but by the end of the song the performer is once again standing centre stage.

At this point he leaves the stage and returns a few seconds later to tumultuous applause. On the night I saw it, as the performer opened his mouth to sing his encore number there was a sound from the audience. I assumed Michael was still in character here as to have spoken as himself would have defeated the whole object of the evening. Had he wanted to, he could have easily sung over the noise. Instead, with outstretched arms he asked theatrically "Do you know something I don't" The audience laughed and he sang Tomorrow followed by This is what it is. Leaving the stage again the audience cheered and applauded until he returned to them. He lent against the piano in a pose any self respecting Rat Pack member would have been proud of and began to sing After the Ball. It was sung without the lyric change of the original show and with accompaniment this time. As the performer (or was Michael back now?) moved forward, I realised the houselights had been lifted so it seemed that for that moment performer and audience were all in the same place no longer separated by the darkness.

So final thoughts:

Well I don't know how accurate any of my impressions are (and unless an interviewer drags it out of Michael at some point we may never know what the creative team intended) but I got the feeling we were meeting up with the character of the original production only several years down the line (if it had meant to be the same point in his life I'm assuming the costume and hair would have remained the same). He is still telling his story but with the benefit of hindsight and having put some distance between himself and his childhood. He could now look back on it all from a happier, more philosophical place.

The new songs introduced were more positive. In One, the character has bags of confidence. He believes in himself, believes in his worth. Tomorrow is another very positive song. The character is no longer envisaging a life walking alone in despair. He now believes that whatever happens today, there is always tomorrow to look forward to and tomorrow has the potential of being a bigger, better, brighter day.

Another thing I noticed is that on all the publicity, flyers etc I've seen ‘Alone Together’ is written in large case initials and not the small case of the original... was there always a sequel planned I wonder.

Here you have a show where 98% of the material was used in the 2001 version but by singing the songs in a more upbeat manner, replacing sombre notes for more positive ones, taking some songs out and adding new ones in their place, reinforcing the story with gestures so there was no doubt in the audiences mind of the songs purpose, the show was given a new lease of life and a life of it's own. I felt Michael used the reactions of the audiences to great effect and at times (eg, The Best of Times, One and the reference to the fire in Is that all there is) it sometimes seemed he and the fans in the audience were sharing more personal information because we knew the relevance of the lyrics being used better than anyone else.

Just as Divas at the Donmar, Singular Sensations is a brilliant showcase for Michael's voice and talent. During the evening we laughed with him, we cried with him and we hung on his every word...

But the big question is, was I disappointed? What do you think!

Marie Thomson
4 October 2004

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