The Phantom Exorcised

~ by Clive Davis, Times 29/09/04~

SOME members of Michael Ball's fan club may be disappointed to find that his one-man show does not contain a larger selection from the schlockier end of the range. If you want wall-to-wall Les Mis, best stay at home with the CDs.

As their contribution to the Haymarket's Singular Sensations programme, Ball and his stylish pianist Jason Carr are much more interested in exploring musical theatre for grown-ups. Even when they dabble with a tune as innocent as Pinocchio's song, I Got No Strings, the ominously clanking chords sound much closer to the dark shadows of Brecht and Weill than the breezy charm of Walt Disney.

Given that he could easily continue to milk the Phantom market for the rest of his days, Ball deserves credit for rising to the challenge of a programme — devised and directed by Jonathan Butterell — that makes serious demands on its audience. The stage is stark and empty; apart from a bottle of water and a single cigarette, there are no props. With no narrative to guide us, and with none of the usual conversational cues to mark shifts in mood, a heavy burden falls on the singer's shoulders.

Sometimes, to be honest, it does seem too much for him. When he brought Alone Together to the Donmar Warehouse three years ago, the venue's confines went a long way to generating a distinctive sense of intimacy. In the Haymarket some of that atmosphere is lost, and Ball's boy-next-door persona cannot easily fill the void. We still sense his vulnerability on the songs written for the wee small hours, but a show as varied and multifaceted as this needs a truly commanding presence at its centre.

Although Ball is never less than likeable, it might take a performer as intense and charismatic as, say, Mandy Patinkin, to draw us into the heart of every lyric.

Ball is in fine voice, however, nowhere more so than in a playful yet fiendishly complicated medley which manages to roll together countless showstoppers into one everexpanding melodic cocktail. There is an explicit nod to Al Jolson along the way, and if the most memorable numbers belong to the past — Ball manages to eclipse Edith Piaf on the insistent, foot-stamping refrain of Padam and turns There's No Business like Show Business into something approaching a reverie — Ball has the courage to add more contemporary numbers to the mix. David Bowie's Life on Mars is one bold choice among many. The residency continues until October 9, after which Ball hands over to the pianist Joshua Rifkin and singer Ida Faiella.
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