The Pheasantry, London
Looking younger than his years Ray Shell skates through the decades of a remarkable career on stage in his cabaret Back To Black, in residence at Chelsea's Pheasantry for this week only. Few other performers define the crossover between soul and musical theatre as does this man and like fine molasses, the resonance of his gloriously weighted tone fills the intimate basement venue. When he sings Friends from Sweeney Todd you only wish that the show could be re-staged with Shell as the barber, it is the most gorgeous sound.
That his set list includes nods to Hair as well as to Kate Bush (no intended connection with that link but 70s savvy folk will see what I did there) is a mark of the man. When Shell sings What A Piece Of Work Is Man from Hair, (itself one of the few Shakespeare soliloquies to have made it into a rock musical), his take on the song, as with so many of his numbers, is exquisite. In recent years Shell has featured in The Lion King and The Bodyguard, neither of which are referenced in the show, but it was his creation of the steam engine Rusty in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express that sealed his reputation on this side of the pond. Throughout Shell’s patter is warm and informative, frequent references to Starlight Express (he reveals that a skating double was used for Rusty's races around the theatre, while he stayed firmly on the level backstage) lead into his closing number of the night, the show's title song that sees his magnificent tenor reach extend into a fine falsetto. For those who recall the opening of that crazy dangerous show at the Apollo Victoria, the moment is a spine-tingling trip back in time some 30 years!
Other highlights are an a-capella take on the Gospel classic (and Parade inclusion) There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood, whilst his cover of The King Of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger, reminds us that the man's craft is timeless. Sting made the songs famous and Shell (who toured with The Police as a backing singer) re-interprets them with panache. Guest slots from Chardel Rhodean and Anthony Barclay provide a modest contrast as Shell joins his three backing singers in their support, but it is “Soul Man” Shell who defines the night.
Paul Jenkins directs a slick three piece musical accompaniment to the night and toes tap throughout the room as Shell, sporting Jonathan Pryce’s Engineer shirt from Miss Saigon, encores with a beautifully toned cover of Amy Winehouse’s title song for his show. A newcomer to London’s cabaret scene, (Shell confessed that this was the first time he had performed Starlight Express off roller skates) the star quality of his set demands that he returns soon. Barely scratching the vast repertoire of his career, there is simply so much more we want to hear from him. Back To Black is a rare chance to hear an exceptional voice, not to be missed.
Runs until 22nd February