“As you climb your ladder of success, reach down and pull others along with you” seems like an appropriate quote to sum up Ameena Hamid, Liam Gartland and Alice Croft’s endeavour with Graduates at Cadogan Hall. Hamid has been climbing that ladder herself with spectacular speed since finishing her tenure as an EdFringe/British Council Emerging Producer in 2019, becoming the youngest female West End producer in history last Christmas as an associate on Death Drop. Credit to her for spearheading this (although what a shame it should fall to the young bright stars of tomorrow to prop up the other young bright stars of tomorrow, rather than – or as well as – the industry ‘heavier-weights’ getting involved). Anyway, that’s no reflection on the show whatsoever and you won’t find much other ‘criticism’ as part of this write-up because, frankly, who needs that after the year we’ve had.
In partnership with The Grad Fest, the small team Hamid’s assembled for this three-part online concert series ensure that it is not only the undertaking that deserves immense commendation but also the execution. This platform for 39 emerging musical theatre performers from around the country is glossier in its production values than I expect the budget suggested it could be – and that’s undoubtedly credit and testament to a lot of late-nights and commitment.
The episodes are beautiful lit by Andy James, seamlessly shot by John-Webb Carter, Luke FIshenden and Lee Ellaway (overseen by Dickson Cossar) and – most importantly of all, I suppose – sound fantastic, thanks to the collective efforts of David Hart, David Gates and Dickson Cossar. The producers have clearly also gone above-and-beyond in their efforts to attract a wider audience to the event (and thus ensure this ‘platform’ is as big as possible for the graduates) by persuading an assortment of familiar faces to submit video messages of support which are dispersed throughout the three ‘episodes’. A nice touch, although I found myself skipping over them if I’m honest – because the stars of this production should be, and proved to be, the young performers themselves.
The concept makes so much sense given our climate that it barely needs an explanation – but for the benefit of anyone without much direct contact with the industry: graduates and ‘soon-to-bes’ are at particular risk of suffering disproportionate professional damage from the pandemic due to the absence of conventional showcases that their schools would normally hold for them. Designed primarily to attract agent representation and put newcomers on the radars of working casting directors.
Whether those audiences ended up watching this is impossible for me to know, but I hope they did. Because the talent here is plentiful and diverse and raw. (It’s reassuring though, to see that around 75% of the cast members – across the three episodes – do already have representation. And if even one who’s currently unrepresented receives enquiries as a result of this series, that’s a major win for the endeavour as far as I’m concerned).
Anyway – the performances. I’ve made it my mission to reference every vocalist as I believe the series gave every one of them deserved exposure and therefore so should we. My caveat is finding different language and adjectives to describe 39 different performances is not always the easiest so forgive me for any repetition:
Episode 1 starts off with ‘riff king’ Abel Law, a formidable tenor from RAM who belts ‘One Night Only’ like his life depends on it. It’s a strong start; a voice that can fill a space as big as Cadogan Hall – and Law’s personality shines through too: a little cheeky, a little seductive, you can sense he’s enjoying himself and it rubs off. He’s followed by George Maddison (also from RAM) – who has major ‘Chris from Ms Saigon’ vibes for me; a superb vibrato and a calm but sort of vulnerable stage presence that I found very engaging.
There is something regal about Karen Wilkinson’s performance of ‘Light in the Piazza’; her vocal control is undeniable and you imagine the sound would resonate around Cadogan Hall even without amplification (no easy feat in a space like that). Jo Stephenson’s ‘Love That Will Last’ showcases her wonderful soul voice, and takes the audience on a real, engaging journey from a gentle, almost child-like persona – to a powerful presence who rightfully takes up space on that vast stage, with the vocal chords to match.
In this first episode, I’m particularly impressed by Jay Worley’s stage presence – who manages to ‘hold the room’ when there’s no one in it (now that’s a talent). As the winner of RAM’s 2019 prize for Outstanding Acting Through Song, it’s perhaps not difficult to understand why. Worley additionally has a beautiful voice, very suited to Sondheim, and ‘Finishing the Hat’ thus seems the perfect showcase number for him.
Performing a ‘Hadestown Medley’, Aoife O’Dea’s performance is perhaps the most natural or effortless so far. Her voice is unique and lilting and layered and suits MT but is simultaneously more than that as well. I’m not sure how many actor/muso gigs she’ll get with her harp (simply due to lack of material) – but I hope someone writes a show especially that allows her to showcase both. I also hope she finds her way into a recording studio, because that’s a distinctive enough voice that record labels ought to be interested in as well. One of the highlights of the entire three-part concert series for me; I look forward to watching her in a professional production before long.
Charlotte Jones, as sole representative of the Emil Dale Academy, does her school total justice – with sublime, powerful vocals and a similar regality to her performance as Wilkinson. She really holds the room and owns that stage – and I didn’t know her song prior (‘All Falls Down’) which always makes things harder, so credit to her so making it tricky to take your eyes off her performance. Sam Rippon’s ‘I’d Rather Be Sailing’ manages to be sweet and somewhat haunting in equal measure, with a lovely control to his voice and a nuanced performance that suggests vulnerability and reflection – making a nice change from the somewhat louder performances that have come before.
Dean Makowski-Clayton does well to avoid a Gavin Creel impression in his performance of ‘I Believe’, and his take on the song is perhaps less ‘hammy’ than it is performed within the show itself – making it his own, to his credit. Alice Croft demonstrates a powerful voice that I imagine would be perfectly suited to rock musicals during her ‘She Used To Be Mine’ performance. I’d maybe have liked to see a bit more ‘emotion’ shine through in addition to the ace vocals, but appreciate that’s tricky in an empty room and without the necessary context of the rest of the show.
In ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, Lewis Snell also demonstrates himself to a voice that record labels ought to be interested in – distinctive, soulful and assured. It’s a lovely song for him to get his personality across – but the fact it isn’t an MT song means it’s perhaps trickier to take the audience on so much of a journey. I’d love to watch him do that.
Millie Cranston’s storytelling abilities really shine through in ‘Heart of Stone’, achieving the right mix of sweetness/vulnerability and power. And finishing off the first episode, Kyle Birch offers the other ‘effortless’ performance of the night in my mind – a rendition of The Wiz’s ‘Home’ with a suitable amount of depth and intelligence. Birch demonstrates a performance quality that feels way more seasoned than his years, and it’s a fitting conclusion to this first part.
Jennifer Adab kicks off episode 2 with an impassioned ‘Me and the Sky’, and it’s her characterisation in particular that leaves an impression on me. One gets the vibe Adab loves singing almost as much as her Beverly Bass loves being a pilot, and the energy she brings to that is infectious and makes the sudden change in pace at the end of the song all the more effective. Georgia Lennon demonstrates silky vocals and a mature performance quality in ‘Second Hand White Baby Grand’. Like Sam Rippon’s performance from the previous episode, you relax listening to Lennon – confident she’s in total control of her vocals.
Curtis Patrick’s ‘Way Ahead of My Time’ is energetic, self-assured – and something which can’t always be said for showcase songs – genuinely good fun. I can’t pretend I’d heard of the Taxi Cabaret before – but the song’s a great choice to show off his comedy and even a touch of choreography. I’m left wanting to see ‘all the moves he’s got on tap’ (and, as an Urdang grad, I imagine there’s quite a few).
Mountview grad Harriet Waters’ tackles a big song (‘Natural Woman’) with grace and a quiet confidence. It isn’t a Carole King impression, nor a Jessie Mueller one, but her own – and it feels somewhat brighter and more ‘innocent’. Henry Shine performs the Bridges of Madison Country’s 11 o’clock number ‘It All Fades Away’ with an acoustic guitar and a belt to die for. His performance is probably my joint highlight of episode two; the perfect song to showcase a voice with immense range and a timbre you could listen to for hours.
India Chadwick’s ‘Spring’ is a tour-de-force in ‘acting through song’; showing off her versatility, comic timing and classically trained voice with a real sense of fun and self-awareness thrown in the mix too. David Mairs-McKenzie’s laudable vocal range is front-and-centre in his performance of Leon Russell’s ‘A Song For You’; a bold song to pick when it’s been covered by everyone from Aretha to Ray Charles to Amy Winehouse but it’s a quietly confident performance that lets the vocals speak for itself.
Fallon Mondlane’s ‘Life I Never Led’ is another of my highlights of episode two; her characterisation is spot-on, her acting is confident and her voice is pure and, I imagine, very versatile. Faye Wheeler performs ‘Journey to the Past’ with class, vulnerability and heart – and Mark Lockhart’s ‘Hero and Leander’ shows off his clear musicality, a gentle personality and some lovely runs.
Olivia Lallo’s ‘Go The Distance’ showcases a vibrato lots of people would be jealous of, and a bright and engaging stage presence that keeps me captivated. Niels Bouwmeester’s tenor vocals shine through with ‘Something to Hold On To’, and it’s performed with emotional intelligence and nuance. Joely Coleen Emms rounds off episode 2 with a beautifully brassy ‘Jenny’s Blues’ that is playful, camp and underpinned by one of the most powerful voices of the series. I’d pay good money to see her as one of the Priscilla divas – a match made in heaven?
Ben Joyce’s ‘Moving Too Fast’ comes across as charismatic and somewhat effortless in equal measure; a cracking opener to the final episode which is full of energy and exceptional vocals during the song’s climax. Darcy Finden’s ‘Natalya’ is impassioned and dynamic – a nice change in pace from the more schmaltzy numbers in the series. Cassie McCluskey brings edge to Elsa in her assured and agile rendition of ‘Into the Unknown’, and Beth Mabin displays a beautifully pure voice and innocence in ‘I Remember’ that’s perfectly suited to Sondheim.
Bibi Jay’s ‘Don’t Wanna Be Here’ makes me want to see her as a Six queen (Anne Boleyn vibes I reckon); a performance bursting with energy and sass – whilst Nathan Shaw’s voice has an air of Ben Platt’s to it in ‘Pity the Child’, an engaging and vocally demanding performance. Amelia Atherton’s ‘Diva’s Lament’ demonstrates comic precision, swagger and adept booming vocals – and Megan Cerys-Holland’s athlethic voice shines through in ‘Turning Tables’: it is soulful and has a similar pureness or authenticity to it as Adele’s so another good choice for her.
Gabe Hampton-Saint (what a name) and Ayesha Patel’s performance are amongst the strongest of episode three in my opinion: the former’s vocals are accomplished and wouldn’t feel out of place on a professional cast recording, his persona’s likeable and kooky and the piece is undeniably cheesy but he seems in on the joke. Which makes it ok. Patel follows with a beautiful ‘Someone Like You’ from Jekyll & Hyde; there’s a palpable confidence in her performance which instils confidence in the audience. Both are currently final-year students (rather than grads), which slightly alleviated my concerns that neither have representation at the moment as two of the most vocally formidable of the episode – but I’m confident either this endevaour, or their school’s own showcases, will lead to them getting snapped up quickly. They certainly deserve it.
Markus Sodergreen proves himself to be an adept baritone in ‘Marry Me A Little’, a song all about love in its fleeting moments that he tackles with grace and subtlety. Kingsley Morton’s electrically-charged ‘Moulin-esque Medley’ (I think she might have assembled the songs together herself, which is sort of iconic) serves whistle-register, some of the strongest vocals of the entire series and a conviction in her delivery that is extremely easy to get behind. Disney Theatrical Productions scholar Nardia Ruth concludes Graduates At Cadogan Hall with a warm, emotive rendition of ‘Imagine’ that oozes in professionalism; another currently unrepresented final-year student who has a bright future in front of her.
That almost concludes my rather lengthy write-up. Once again, I’m sorry for any unintended repetition – but finding different words to express 39 consistently impressive performances turned out to be an exercise that took longer than expected.
I feel the final word (and bow) wholeheartedly deserves to be taken by the project’s musical director and accompanist: RAM postgraduate student Sam Young. Young accompanies all 39 vocalists (a feat in itself, must have been one – or a couple – of long days for him) and I imagine he was instrumental in many of the fantastic arrangements too. It can’t be easy, for example, making ‘Into The Unknown’ work on a solo piano alone. Graduates At Cadogan Hall is certainly as much a showcase for Young as it is for everyone else, if not more so, and I look forward to watching his own career develop after he’s graduated.