Pros: A technically brilliant singer, dripping with soul and a hatful of great stories.
Cons: Bar staff wandering back and forth during the performance can be distracting.
The Crazy Coqs is a hidden gem in London’s West End. Just two minutes’ walk from Piccadilly Circus tube, the jazz and cabaret club is discreetly hidden in the basement of Brasserie Zedel. Walking down a gently winding stairway, I was immediately struck by the understated class of the Art Deco venue. As I was shown to my seat, the mood of an intimate jazz bar was fixed in my mind. Tables were lit by glowing orange lamps and I half expected Hercule Poirot to be seated next to me. I just knew I was going to enjoy this show.
Ray Shell entered via the bar; strolling around tables giving a stirring acapella rendition of ‘Blessed Jesus, Assurance is Mine’. Positioned in front of a simple piano/synthesiser accompaniment, he proved his outstanding vocal abilities time and again. A veteran West End performer, Ray hooked us with great vignettes about his life in theatre. Yes, he name drops, but he has the right. This man has paid his dues. I felt privileged to hear stories about Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn and Bill Kenright. You rapidly appreciate the breadth and quality of Ray’s CV. Tales of Starlight Express, Jesus Christ Superstar and Miss Saigon (among many others) were precursors to each song.
There were so many standouts in Ray’s set that it’s difficult to choose individual tunes. Selections were broad ranging and surprisingly eclectic. ‘Tracks of my Tears’ was a reassuring nod to Motown, while Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’ was a brilliant reading of a modern pop hit. Louis Jordan’s ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ recalled his memorable performance as Nomax in Five Guys Named Moe. His extraordinary vocal range is ably demonstrated on songs written for women. For example, ‘The Man with the Child in His Eyes’ and ‘The Movie in my Mind’ from Miss Saigon, would appear be in the wrong key for a man to sing. But hey, the guy pulls it off with consummate ease. He also delivered a curve ball when he revealed doing backing vocals for The Police. Cue a spine tingling rendition of ‘King of Pain’ and ‘Wrapped Around your Finger’.
It seems apparent that Starlight Express was a turning point in Ray’s career as he often returned to it in conversation. He created the role of Rusty in the original 1984 production, and on its 30th Anniversary, it was fitting that Kim Leeson (who played Pearl) should duet with him on Only You. But for me, Ray’s most adroit performance came with Billie Holliday’s achingly beautiful ‘Good Morning Heartache’. I shivered at the power, emotion and pain portrayed in the vocal. I am beginning to run out of superlatives to describe this man’s talent – you’ll simply have to hear it all for yourself.
Authors: Ray Shell and Dollie Henry
Director: Dollie Henry
Musical Director/Associate: Paul Jenkins
Box Office: 020 7734 4888
Booking link: http://www.brasseriezedel.com/crazy-coqs/choose-seats/23707
Booking until: This run has now completed.