Pros: A truly entertaining night out with wonderful singing. A fascinating glimpse into Ray Shell’s musical career and life, presented with charm and humour.
Cons: It was over all too quickly and could only scratch the surface of this highly talented entertainer’s repertoire.
Ray Shell’s Back to Black is a touching and highly entertaining look at the life and career of Ray Shell, past and present, with a definite emphasis on the present. This isn’t a performer just looking back at past glories. He shows us his journey, the twists and turns in his life that formed him and his work, and ultimately the decision he took to shape his own destiny. He tells us that if you want to do something you have to trust in your own ability and get on and do it. Nobody could accuse Ray Shell of not having done that. He has written two novels, Iced and Feeding Martha. He is at present working on the production of a film version of Iced. He is also currently directing Lucifer at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, where he is creative director of Giant Olive Theatre Company.
His show is split into two distinct halves. The first half traces his early career from when he stood on a stage and sang with his father who was a preacher in America. Then comes an amazing list of the musicals he performed in after coming to London in 1978, and theatre greats he has worked with, such as Trevor Nunn, Arlene Phillips and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Some of the musicals he starred in are Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweeney Todd, The Lion King, and of course Starlight Express, in which he played Rusty, which he regards as one of his most important roles. He also had a career in pop music, singing with, amongst others, The Police.
In the first half he is dressed in a very dapper dark suit, looking every inch the cabaret star. In the second act he comes out in an incredibly bright orange, bejewelled shirt, which he tells us was given to him by Jonathan Pryce when they were in Miss Saigon together. The second part of the show seems to be about him emerging as the artist he wants to become, and in his brightly coloured shirt he is like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, free to pursue his own projects. This half features songs written by his Musical Director, Paul Jenkins and he is joined by guests Chardel Rhoden and Anthony Barclay. The backing singers are Debra Lewis and Milton Brown.
Ray Shell’s voice is of course the centre piece of the show; he has the kind of voice that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Powerful, smooth and seemingly effortless, with an amazing range, it filled this small venue and enveloped you. One of the highlights was his mother’s favourite hymn, a gospel song There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood, sung acapella and of course there was Starlight Express. This show ends on Saturday, see it if you possibly can. It is a gem.
The Pheasantry is a lovely venue. A beautiful Georgian building, it was once used for rearing pheasants for the Royal Household. It also functioned as a famous ballet school, which Dame Margot Fonteyn attended, and a night club, which was the venue for Lou Reed’s early UK gigs. The building houses a Pizza Express restaurant and you can eat while watching the show. I felt apprehensive about this and thought it might be noisy and distracting, but in fact I have sat next to noisier people rustling bags of sweets at the National Theatre. The whole experience is very pleasant, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Author: Ray Shell
Director: Dollie Henry
Musical Director: Paul Jenkins
Box Office: 0207 400 1257
Booking Link: http://www.pizzaexpresslive.com/popList.aspx
Booking Until: 22nd February 2014