Heading up the winding staircase at the Etcetera Theatre, to take my seat for I Heart Michael Ball, I can’t help but wonder what I’ve let myself in for. It sounds innocent enough – how dark can a play about Michael Ball really get? But following the podcast interview I did with Split Infinitive, the subsequent Twitter exchanges, not to mention the blood-splattered poster and the plastic sheeting covering the stage, I’m slightly apprehensive.
It’s not often you get a freebie at a show, but this afternoon, on officially joining the Michael Ball Appreciation Society, we’re all given a pin badge by none other than the founder of the society, Alex, played by show creator Alex Millington. And then we’re politely, but firmly asked to put it on. He uses the same gentle, yet sinister tone to encourage us to get out our phones and follow the society on Twitter and Facebook. This sets the scene for the rest of the performance.
To say Alex is a Michael Ball fan would be putting it lightly. He’s obsessive. He asks us what we’d be doing tonight if we weren’t at the meeting; one man says he’d be watching Netflix. With horror, Alex comments that he doesn’t think there is any Michael Ball on Netflix. There’s a lovely level of interaction throughout the show, and this only makes his personal revelations and his increasingly horrific actions even more disturbing.
The story behind Alex’s love of Michael Ball is truly heart-breaking. He shares childhood memories of his brother who almost gets his dream – to become Michael Ball – and the abuse they both suffered at the hands of a drunken father. Following the personal intros at the start of the show, these moments are loaded with emotional intensity. It’s quite uncomfortable at times, but in the most perfect way that theatre can tap into humanity and compassion. His subsequent performance of one of his favourite songs is loaded with emotion (and his voice holds its own alongside the great man himself).
Alex plays the role with a remarkable mix of innocence and darkness despite what unfolds. He’s almost clownish at times, childish in his mannerisms yet holds our attention fully. Whilst what plays out towards the end is obviously, hopefully, fiction, there’s a raw honesty emanating from Alex throughout.
This isn’t a show for the faint-hearted: I should know, being of a nervous disposition. The off-stage violence and particularly the sound effects are quite unpleasant. But this is a brilliant show. Despite the horrific actions of Alex, I can’t help but feel a soft spot for him. And I promise to put a lot more Michael Ball on my musical theatre playlists from now on.
Written by: Alex Millington
Produced by: Split Infinitive
I Heart Michael Ball plays at Etcetera Theatre until 7 Augyst. Further information and bookings can be found here.