For this Man is second best to none...

by Julia Bunny

I must admit I was swept away by the old glamour of the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was love on the first sight. Gold decorations, ceiling paintings…I half expected Oscar Wilde to turn around the next corner and share his views on our decadent and hypocritical society with a throng of terribly amused admirers. What a beauty she is, this theatre. And then I remembered why I was there and whom I was going to see in a few minutes and thought: this is the completely wrong setting for this kind of show. Having seen Michael Ball's “Alone Together” programme at its original Donmar Warehouse run, I thought I knew what to expect. And glamorous surroundings with cute little stucco angels all over the place somehow didn't seem to fit with a no make up , no costumes, no scenery production about the mostly rather lonely and sad life of a performer, which basically is what Alone Together is about. The brick wall clarity of the Donmar seemed so much more appropriate to this dark and deep journey through an hurt soul. But this place was light and sweet. I thought! Until I took my seat. No safety curtain (it will probably have painted angels all over!), but a bare stage, you can see the brick walls (back to brick again, good), the spotlights, the emergency doors, nothing is concealed and the contrast between stage and auditorium couldn't be more drastic. In awe we are gazing at this. A theatre's unglamorous shell…the real thing. Now THAT seems right! The contrast stresses the torn soul, the double life and the fake glamour that is showbiz and makes you think before even the first note escaped the only posh item in sight: a Steinway & Sons grand piano. Apart from that there is only a chair, a towel and a water bottle. End of prob list.

The excited chatting all around me, the usual pre-Michael Ball show buzz, only adds to this clash of reality and illusion. Waiting time. Always a good moment to have a closer look at the audience. Being seated in the front ten rows usually gets you dead centre of the “adoration–pond.” Beaming faces, leaping through the high gloss programme of the Singular Sensations Season. The usual remarks on the too low number of Michael Ball pictures in it, the affectionate giggles at favourable mentions of the very man in newspaper clippings, talks about what was cut from the original show and what stayed, disgust at the lack of theatre etiquette some people displayed when, apparently, in the evenings before this, flashes went up in the middle of the performance. I have to admit I like this crowd. I like their unashamed love for this man, I like their excitement and the stars in their eyes, when the ringing outside reminds us that the show is about to begin. You also get the less flattering mentions of other fans, a murmured mix of jealousy that someone got a particular tight hug at the stage door, and genuine joy to see everyone after a long time of Ball-withdrawal ( his series of summer concerts ended nearly two months ago and that, for a Ballette, is an eternity).

And, if you ever watched Ball parting the crowd at stage door – a spectacle you shouldn't miss, it's part of the whole event – you can see that, even IF they demand kisses, hugs, countless signatures, greetings into mobile phones, he likes his ecstatic crowd, too. Not a thing that goes without saying with any performer, but especially with a performer of Ball's status. But his affectionate patience with stammering women, forgetting their names when the blue eyes meet theirs, is unsurpassed. Yes, even when he has a cold and you can tell he longs for nothing more but the warm inside at this cool October day, he takes his time and tries to make the day unforgettable for everyone present. A true professional and a genuinely friendly and caring man. Oh the happy sighs and mad giggles once he is out of sight….

Ah the third and last ringing outside and we all fall silent. Anticipation gets almost palpable. From somewhere out in the bricks pianist Jason Carr takes on the stage with a friendly smile and is greeted with warm applause. He takes us through a little Ouverture that seems like foreplay to something great…no SOMEONE great as here he comes: Michael Ball has appeared in the back of the stage and massive applause erupts but he won't let us stop him, he starts singing straight away. Not the place for friendly winks and audience flirtations. He came to tell a story and that he sure does. Now there is one thing about Michael Ball you have to know if you never saw him perform: he will not settle with simply leaning back and let his unique voice tell the tale, no, his whole body does. From the incredibly versatile eyebrows down to his feet (clad in his familiar dancing shoes, a left-over from his time as cast lead in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ). He starts with a little medley to tell us the last place he wants to be now is on stage, in front of an audience “assessing”. No, this is not going to be a happy clap along-evening. But just when you feel like apologising for putting such a pressure on him (no irony here, it really does sound convincing, this fear of failure), he changes the tone and atmosphere completely. Instead of Joni Mitchell's laconic Blue that marked the departing point at the Donmar run , he asks himself where to begin to tell the story of a life and, quiet logically, ends up at Do Re Mi ( from Sound of Music ) , which is a relief of sorts and lightens up the whole audience. Ball has this capability to literally take you along his “journey”, not only through the songs but also across the stage. I see countless eyes following his every movement as he blends Do Re Mi to One (Singular Sensation) from Chorus Line, just like that. I have seen and heard a lot, but trust me, this one left me speechless. Brilliantly arranged to allow a brief pause for a small introductory speech about the terrifying prospect of performing in a series that is called Singular Sensations and about the hunger for appreciation and applause that makes all performers risk their necks out there every given night, that literally drives them out there again and again…but also about the arrogance it takes to regard yourself important enough to expect people to pay for seeing you. Watching him up there, resuming the pace and energy of this wonderful piece of self-awareness, makes you want to cheer with delight and reminds you of the thrill that is showbiz at its best. He leaves his audience screaming for more, gasping with ecstasy (at least that is what my seat neighbour quite clearly does…unless she forgot her asthma inhaler, but the blushed cheeks and sparkling eyes reassure me there is no need for an emergency call). Magical is the word I hear murmured around me, as the excitement slowly settles. Whenever he ends on of those songs with what is known as a “money note” you get this feeling of being physically able to touch perfection and bliss. The whole stage, audience and world is his! No, this voice surely didn't need any training. It's perfect as it is, and, even though the interested audience member learned from caring Ballettes Mr Ball has a severe cold, you hear nothing but a powerful baritone that would make some famous opera singers cry with despair. How he does it and manages to make it sound as easy as folding a piece of paper remains his very own secret. But it leaves us in awe and in burning curiosity as to what is next and whether we will get to hear one of these extreme big and heart-stopping notes again.

The money note phenomenon is something Mr Ball has been criticised for at several times by several reviewers. Too much aimed at entertaining the public, too little fine tuned art involved. I guess these critics only saw the effect these notes had on their wives and hated it. As how can you blame a performer for impressing his audience, for making them forget about anything outside the auditorium but only living to listen to this one, perfect sound? It surely is a trademark and is – to my knowledge- unrivalled. There was no room for them at the confined Donmar Warehouse, they would probably have caused the brick wall to come down, but in this spacious theatre, he can work his wonders without fear and does it.

We got only a small breathing pause as he leads us straight into Padam, Padam masterfully translated by Jason Carr and hauntingly beautiful in its gloom. I trust Edith Piaf would have applauded in appreciation.

The mood gets darker and back to the familiar Donmar melancholy, a childhood without a father he so longed for, a lonely mother, disillusionment with life in general culminating in the more than sarcastic Is that all there is? (sung whilst smoking a cigarette, which caused a little unrest in the adoration-pond around me, they sure prefer a clean, non-smoking Michael Ball, but this is an honest piece of sung theatre, so they get an honest, smoking Ball). You cannot help but smile a grim smile all the way through. When he declares that he is in “no hurry for the final disappointment” when he breathes his last breath and discovers that this is all there is to death, you start moving uneasily in your chair. Showbiz glamour couldn't be further away and not even a money note could erase the bitter taste these words leave behind. Mind you, we don't get any money note. Only a knowing look. We are left alone to cope with it, just as he is.

Deep, dark, Donmar was the line of alliteration familiar to most Ballettes, but there surely are the very up-lifting moments, too, like Stairway to paradise , for example. Delivered sexy, seductive, slow and with a manic twinkle in the eye. No giving without taking though: The Pinocchio song I've got no strings on the other hand gets bitter sweet, as being free also translates to having no bonds with anyone, there is only a very thin line between freedom and loneliness. Using Pinocchio twice surely is no coincidence. The wooden doll craving to become a real boy mirrors the core them: The gap between illusion and reality, living and existing, to be or not to be (now how did that happen? Pinocchio versus Hamlet…?).

The roaring finale of the first half is, quite appropriately, There's no Business like Showbusiness , but it is different from what you think it should sound. It starts out much slower and I can hear a gentlemen behind me whispering to his wife:' I know this song...I think...somehow'. But then there appears the familiar tune and the manic twinkle in Ball's eyes is back as he raises the roof with the last note. Amazing.

He leaves the stage straight away, no bows, no mouthed thank yous. He and Jason Carr are gone and here comes the safety curtain and I try to restrain myself when I see it is decorated with…guess what? Exactly: painted angels all over it!

After some 15 minutes of excited women talking with feverish joy over the past 45 minutes, having drinks and moaning about the longest queue in history at the lady's, we are rung back into the auditorium.

No scared and insecure performer meets us in the comforting darkness this time, no, Ball re-emerges from the back of the theatre in bow tie and his dark grey Jeans don't seem too casual anymore with this gear (mind you, Armani jeans never seem TOO casual anyway…) and he opens with what he refers to as the Showbiz Medley from Hell , ten minutes, thirty showbiz tunes. At one point he bangs his hand on the piano while gasping for breath with an angry look at arranger Jason Carr who plays on unimpressed with his singers' breathing troubles. On and on they race, this is no medley but a rally! To honour those who can only picture Michael Ball as matinee idol, he even put the one line in that made him famous: the four words Love, Love Changes Everything cause some uproar in the upper circle, which seems uncalled for, but subtle and - most importantly SILENT - joy isn't for everyone, so they chose a loud howl of delight instead. Hum, seems not everyone gets the irony, but art is open for different interpretations of course, so what can you do but shake your head in silent disbelief.

But when this is over, our performer had his moments of fame, a tour through all of the Unites States, he explores loneliness a bit more with Radiohead`s (!) Nice Dream, slowly dropping the bow tie we are back in reality where you find friend's are only there when you are happy. And success in business doesn't necessarily mean success in life in general. He suffers and so do we, for his maddening loneliness creeps into your heart and stays there.

But onwards and upwards, as they say, and a strange new feeling allows us to relax and even smile! He falls in love, deeply in love and oh, what happiness! A sensitive soul that has longed for love so long cannot fall quietly but head over heels. It's such a joy to watch She touched me / I wonder why . He surely is a master of love songs, yes. And somehow it is reassuring to know he has been there and done that, it gives you comfort and the strength to cope with what is inevitable: heartbreak and loneliness which has a new quality added to it, it is almost maddening, too much to bear. We get a small warning from Ball: “ Love can take you on an amazing roller coaster ride…but it can also go so horribly wrong” and you know you should have brought more tissues along! At only two instances he speaks directly to the audience, but this doesn't mean WITH the audience. It involves you on the surface, but actually you remain left out, a distant spectator of what is to come.


It starts with the poignant Remind me that takes us into I wish I could forget you , Fosca's desperate plea for love in Sondheim's Passion , which already are difficult to watch, you hear the first rusting of handbags being searched for tissues. And then he dares starting to cry, on stage, just like that. Trembling lips, breaking voice, as the tragedy goes on. No mercy, heartache doesn't stop merely because you think you cannot go on, and so won't Ball. She is gone and he suffers beyond belief. What now my love is scary in its intensity and anger. Half of me asks: is suffering is allowed to be so beautiful? The teary, almost unreal blue eyes, the complete openness of the whole scene. It has been described as “raw emotion”. To me this doesn't do it justice. It is pure emotion! No false vanity or shame, it's the real life, the real pain Ball delivers. Suffering in every inch of his body, but it remains dignified because it is so true. You can see his whole body tremble with the effort of this fast and almost delirious song. The desperate outbreak that is the final few notes of it “What now my love, now there is nothing, only my last good bye”, belted out in a manic howl, makes you want to sob out loud and I will be honest with you, I cried for the whole of the set… from I wish I could forget you to the Bach Prelude in E – minor that gives you (and Ball) some breathing space. As from What now my love he continues into How can I lose you which, to me, is the saddest and most moving love lost song ever written. He stands in the middle of the stage, lost. Staring into space, giving up, mourning. And yet again there are his tears that make it difficult to watch. No, suffering isn't comfortable, being left alone and hurt isn't entertaining. It is the worst feeling in the world and you drown with him into this endless sea of nothingness.

The audience is silent enough to hear his every breath and we cry. The urge to hug your neighbour nearly becomes overpowering but no, no Bach yet, no break, no comfort.

The angry, no furious Is there Life on Mars? hits you with full blast. For the first time ever this song makes complete sense to me. After this terrible break-up – ANY terrible break-up – you feel lost and confused, wish to be far away from where the pain is, you only realise bits and pieces of the world around you that dares to go on as if nothing has happened. As the pain is overpowering, you escape…or at least seek an escape, be it in cinema or on another planet. And finally there is nothing left but a complete collapse, no use to run away from these feelings, you have to allow them in, admit them. No more fighting it or you will lose your mind. He is on the verge but then comes Bach and saves him (and us). After the heart quenching finale of Life on Mars you are allowed time to order your thoughts (and mascara) and to take some deep breath.


He listens intently to Carr playing his prelude in semi-darkness, and then Ball raises his head and assumes that “there must be a God above…somewhere”. You are inclined to agree even if you are an avid atheist, as a voice like this on the last night of a 12 performances run surely cannot be anything else than heaven-sent.


Despite all the pain and suffering that makes up life, the finale releases the audience in a good, even optimistic mood, as the conclusion is that we are Alone Together ; Here feels good , feels almost right; I love ya, Tomorrow, the sun will come out Tomorrow , and finally After the Ball is over many' s the fears that have vanished.


Roaring applause meets Michael Ball as he takes his extra bow (no need to steal it), hugs Jason Carr and beams with tears in his eyes (happy tears for once) at the audience, all on their feet, tumultuous BRAVOS sound through the night and we are grateful for his immense courage.

Lost for words and yet chatting non-stop the masses drift through the exit that leads straight to the stage door. Everyone agrees that thanks to him singing Tomorrow and leaving out How glory goes the whole play got a much lighter final note. All pains stop some day and as long as we have each other, life can actually be quite a good thing…maybe. Also you must never allow depression to take over…

What is left to say? Nothing, he said it all, and with money notes! It should be time now to give a special mention to his very quiet notes, too. They never sounded more pure and soft, and that didn't go unnoticed.

Michael Ball and Jason Carr: the perfect pair. Thanks to everyone involved, this was a truly unforgettable experience!

Five stars out of five.


04/09/2004 14:32

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