Hampton Court Festival - 14/06/2008

So here we were...back on English soil...or rather whatever the floor of Stansted airport is made of. It has been a long and delayed journey for parts of us while the other had to wait for an eternity…but there you go. Travelling means a lot of waiting around…and occasionally swearing under your breath.

But whatever, we were back at last. It's been three months since our last adventure (a Hairspray visit. We did not write a review as frankly, we have seen the show 16 times by now and are afraid you'd get too bored reading the same again and again.) and we were finally going to see (more importantly: hear!) Michael in concert again – at last proper singing! It's not that he doesn't sing in Hairspray, he does. He even gets four money notes, but it's just not the same as a whole evening of Michael as himself. Unlike some we do not mind seeing him as a woman at all, the only thing we really miss is this magnificent voice which understandably has little room to shine when he is a housewife in 1960s Baltimore….

With little time in London – sadly no Hairspray this time, we really only came over for this one concert – we got up early-ish and made it into town to do some food shopping and to get a few tickets for Les Miz in July (next trip is fully organised now! YAY!). We had a quick look around our favourite haunts and then dashed back to the car (it's amazing that you can find parking in the city centre even when it's Trooping the Colour day!).

We found Hampton Court all right for we have been before. It's a wonderful, wonderful place, even when it isn't the venue of your first Michael concert after a long year. It's worth seeing for it's gardens alone. We managed to park around the corner on the street (which proved to be a problem much later in the night when all the gates were closed…).

It was great to walk across the grounds and meeting fans wherever we went. Like a huge family outing. We waited for our friends Pat and Angela to do the big ticket exchange (and we will not go into the details as to why we ended up with 12 tickets for just one concert… ). But it was early hours and everybody we were supposed to meet would only arrive at late afternoon, so we just enjoyed the splendours of Hampton Court…and listened to the rehearsals. The concert was to happen in on of the inner courts of the palace, so one couldn't really see anything (which we know is how Michael prefers his rehearsals), but hearing this voice again, money notes all over the place (he never holds back while rehearsing) in the blazing sunshine was a pure delight. And entertaining enough, for he rehearsed for four hours (admittedly with breaks in-between though)!! So we already knew what we could look forward to, if you didn't want that, you could easily escape by walking away into the gardens. We experienced it ourselves, sitting on one of the nearby meadows you couldn't hear a single note, but when you came a little closer, there he was in full glory.

This meant we would get a Hairspray medley. Yipee!! We couldn't wait. He did all the major songs in that rehearsal…in an Alone Together meets Hairspray kind of way. It was fab! But what really, really got us excited was that he rehearsed I Know Where I've Been. The big number by Motormouth Maybelle. It's a goosebumps moment in the musical, when she sings this song about equality and hope, but hearing him sing it has been a dream come true for us. Many, many hours in front of the queue at the Shaftesbury box office were spent gushing about how wonderful it would be to hear him sing this song one time. And there he was, singing away, sending shivers down our spine. And this was only the rehearsal!

That was us sorted. The evening could only be perfect. Come rain, come storm, it wouldn't matter. He'd sing this song and we'd be in heaven.

When we arrived at the palace the song that greeted us was You'll Never Walk Alone. An utter delight, and we thought quite appropriate seeing that it has an anniversary this year and lots of media attention. But in retrospect we realised (nearly two weeks later…ahem), that he never sang it on stage that night! Ah well, there you go. It was lovely to listen to even with a huge wall in-between him and us.

The hours flew by and when it was time to get inside we were all excited. The huge gates opened and here we were: it was a small-ish rectangular court (by the name of Base Court apparently), the seats very close to the stage, no long rows, somehow a very intimate feeling even though we were outside. We had tickets in row C and sat in front of the backing singers. Perfect view.

Sadly the English weather forecast is scarily accurate (though our friends from the UK tend to deny that). It had predicted rain from 7 pm…and at 7:05 pm it started to rain. For once in our lives we had come prepared however, and merely got out our rain ponchos (always worth the investment!!). Thoroughly water proof we even enjoyed the rain, as it wouldn't have been a proper open air concert without it. We enjoyed it even more because we know from the trusted meteorological office that the rain would stop again eventually. We have watched those cloud movements for weeks before we left home.

Act I

there we were, eagerly anticipating what was to come. And finally, after all those months of withdrawal, after a long night and some travelling at last he was back: Michael Ball had entered the palace (well, okay, he had entered it hours before that moment but hey, anything goes when it comes to review-writing!). He was back with a vengeance. You could tell he had missed this, missed being himself on stage, being adored for being himself on stage and being able to sing whatever he liked on stage. Never mind the rain (he had told friends of us that they needn't worry, he'd be under a roof, so wouldn't get wet. Gosh, thanks, now we feel soooo much better! LOL), he was having a wonderful time. We all had to laugh when he got to the line “see it sparkle and shine” of This is the Moment and all we could see was more grey clouds and more fierce rain. He had a giggle now and then. But he was laughing with us not about us…yeah, right.

So, yes, he had opened with the trusted This is the Moment which got him the first of many standing ovations of the evening. Always does. Next we were treated to two songs from his latest album Back to Bacharach. They worked well live, though we still admit at not being the most avid fans of this kind of music (sorry about that). But they were beautifully performed and seeing that the rain ponchos worked, we were quite happy sitting there and watching a wonderful performance of a man with a mighty fine voice. You could, if you listened very carefully, hear a small strain now and then, probably due to all this rehearsing. It had paid off though. Everything went swimmingly (almost).

I will not list every song in here, because we have a song list here. Also because this might get a bit tiring after a while.

So we make a little jump to the medley us two had been eagerly waiting for (no, not Hairspray yet): Prepare Ye and Gethsemane. Now, we have heard him sing those two songs on a number of occasions and Gethsemane never disappoints. I doubt I will ever come across any singer who will do this song more justice. (I know, I know, full bias, there are plenty of them out there, you should get out more etc. etc. But not for me, no. I have heard this song sung by many a singer and no one even came close. So either cope with my bias of skip this paragraph ;-)). Tonight was different though. Even in the rain the place held so much dignity, so much history and such commanding beauty that it seemed the perfect setting for this epic piece of music. Inwardly I thought “he is talking with the heavens now, it should stop raining, really”, and I swear I hadn't properly finished this thought when he got to the first few lines of Gethsemane and the rain stopped! Just like that.

Gethsemane is more like a session of soul searching than mere musical theatre song and when those money notes began to fill every cell our bodies I think one could not help feeling rather royal, sitting there, surrounded by history, this remarkable palace fantastically lit, and here to entertain us all was the best singer in the known universe (and also those aliens in the unknown universe would have a tough job presenting anyone better I think…).

Now after he had reminded us what this whole fan lark was all about and got the well-deserved standing ovation for it, it was time to meet his guest performers as we were treated to a selection of songs from the best (serious) musical of all times: Les Misérables.

Michael's guests were the amazing Michael Sterling (what a voice!), the beautiful Emma Kershaw and the ever so talented Michael McCarthy (see? I can say nice things about other singers, too.). It was wonderful to hear all these great singers together and also you got a best of Les Mis thrown in for free(kind of)! Three Michaels on one stage couldn't fail. The best bit came when not only Michael and his guests but his three backing singers, too, joined the line up for a breath taking finale of One Day More. Annie sang Eponine and Shena and Lance (a new face for us) were Mr and Mrs Thénardier.

Adequately elated we went into our interval. Seeing we didn't book the posh seats (under a roof but right at the back), we had to make do without Gordon Ramsey cooking for us. Never mind though, as our friend Angela had brought enough food to feed a whole legion of fans. What was peculiar about this concert was that normally you have the time BEFORE the concert to have your picnic. This time they had decided to allow an extra long interval…and by saying long I mean long enough to read a book…or even write one! 75 solid minutes. We thought that sounded like an eternity. But as it should have been clear to us from the start, the time simply flew by. We had so many wonderful women around us to talk to that we were all caught by surprise when we were told to go back inside (through the palace to the court which technically of course isn't inside but pretty much outside). We didn't even manage to eat terribly much as we were so buy chatting and catching up. The grounds were amazing and there were even some people in period costumes! Henry VIII looked kind of cute but seeing we didn't like his way of divorcing his wives, we passed.

Back on our seats we were happy to see the darkening sky had cleared a bit and the ponchos could stay where they were.

Act II

The second half began with Oh What a Circus from Evita. Michael then told us what a strange evening this was…doing the first half of a concert, then have your dinner and do the second half. He liked it but missed the wine, seeing it would have made him too tired to perform. He also did quite a convincing Gordon Ramsey parody. Nothing could have given you the idea that it had been a whole year since he did his last proper concert. Happy chitchat, audience at his feet, things were pretty much back to normal. We even touched on the sensitive topic of Kismet, as he sang the two main songs. It felt like being back on tour. Once he had finished with a powerful rendition of And This Is My Beloved though, you could tell he'd need some time to get back into a concert routine for he started introducing the next song until he realised he had forgotten which song exactly this would be. Callum could help him there and Michael got the giggles a bit and exclaimed: “Oh of course! My favourite song!” but then continued that he loved it indeed, even though he had forgotten about it momentarily. It was The Prayer sang in duet with Emma Kershaw. Mmmh, we love it when he sings Italian.

He then paid tribute to Blood Brothers which was great because we really love that musical but could only go and see it once as it was much too intense and too sad to go again and again (and also because usually we have a Ball-activity to keep us entertained when we are in London, so there are not too many evenings off). It was very interesting to see the mood of Tell Me It's Not True transporting straight into Show Must Go On.

Michael checked his watch remarking how the next song he'd sing would be performed at the Shaftesbury about now and we knew this was it, the Hairspray section was about to begin. We held hands when the very familiar yet slightly re-arranged notes of I Know Where I've Been made us hold our breath. It was phenomenal. Simply phenomenal. We can only hope he will continue singing this song at each and every open air concert so that as many people as possible get a chance to hear it. Michael said he is no Johnnie Fiori, but boy was that amazing. Different, but it still worked easily out of context. The lyrics where changed ever so slightly to allow for him to sing it without a weird moment at the line “though the night is black as my skin” which now was “though the night is blacker than sin”. I wish he'd record it. What a powerful song.

As soon as the standing ovation was given the party time started. But oh no, not with One Step Out Of Time or Help Yourself, but with a medley of every major song in Hairspray. The highlight no doubt was the re-written version of Timeless To Me. The whole lyrics now were about Michael not being 25 anymore and the others told him not too be too down about that, he still was rather successful and so on. Very cleverly scripted but sadly we cannot remember one line. The big surprise came when the first few lines were actually sung by none other than Callum McLeod himself! We hardly ever heard him speak so when a male voice filled the air we kept searching the stage for one of Michael's guests and it was almost over when we realised who started the song! He did really well, too! How scary it must have been for this quiet and always highly concentrated man to turn to the audience and sing next to Michael Ball. He did a fantastic job. We were quite in awe.

It was priceless to see Michael sing Tracy, they should consider to have him swap characters with his “daughter” for his final matinee. What an utter delight! Not a word perfect delight maybe, but who cares!?! Everyone was on their feet dancing and cheering him on.

Night had fallen at Hampton Court Palace when he took his first “final” bow and left the stage. It didn't take long until he returned to the ecstatic crowd for the compulsory Love Changes Everything. After that he called everyone back onto the stage for a rousing finale of Do You Hear The People Sing?

As you can imagine this was the perfect way to end a perfect evening. When he left the stage we were all on a high and left Base Court in this weird state of excited bliss mingled with quiet amazement.

We were all ushered into the “back garden” to see a firework display as a celebration of a magnificent concert. The entire back of the palace was lit in dramatic blue. If you should ever get the chance, do not hesitate, go and see Michael at an open air concert. I guarantee it will be an evening you will never forget.

See you all on the grass!

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