TV comedian and presenter Alexander Armstrong makes his cabaret debut this week in the fabulously Jackie Collins-esque surroundings of the Hippodrome Casino, Leicester Square’s converted music hall and theatre. The venue’s cabaret spot, the Matcham Room, was converted from the original theatre’s backstage area. Spacious yet intimate, with its leather banquettes, brass-studded tables and swirly-patterned carpets, the room is filled with an enthusiastic and polite crowd, predominately middle-aged and above – perhaps a fair few fans of Armstrong’s TV game show Pointless, as well as those who know him best as one half of the comedy duo Armstrong & Miller.
Dressed casually in shirt-sleeves and jeans, Armstrong impresses from the start with absolutely effortless singing, showcasing a powerful voice. Armstrong is well supported by his talented four-piece band, led by the virtuosic and versatile “Harry The Piano”, in an enjoyable set of jazz standards, classic theatre songs and even a couple of imaginative 80s covers.
A little-known fact about this multi-talented performer is his background as a classical chorister. This shows in the strength of Armstrong’s vocal sound, with a beautifully resonant tone, perfect diction and obvious technical agility. Occasionally the singing is heavy with vibrato: this repertoire would benefit from a lighter touch, but it is a wonderful luxury to hear such a lyrical version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – songs like this were written for a voice like Armstrong’s.
Explaining to the audience that this is his first cabaret show, Armstrong takes a short while to warm up, but after a couple of numbers he soon eases into some genial between-songs chat. Don’t expect a stand-up routine – he’s wearing another hat for this show – but a few well-timed topical gags are thrown in. The audience are with Armstrong all the way however, listening intently and soaking up every rich, glorious note; here is a performer who knows how to work a room. He communicates with sensitivity, particularly in the Ben Folds Five song Thank You For Breaking My Heart. This has some beautiful moments of emotional intensity, and it showcases Armstrong’s vocal control.
A consummate musician, this Northumberland lad reveals his musical passions; a set list peppered with Gershwin and swing shows his feel for the syncopated rhythms of jazz and a love of classic singers’ songs, and of course, Armstrong has the voice to do them justice. He dips his toe into some vocal riffing and improvising, albeit rather studied and tentative.
The more Armstrong is able to shake off the straitjacket of his classical training, the more he will be able to relax and enjoy himself. One lovely moment of showing off (a comedy long note) prompts the audience into loud whoops of delight. A few more of these playful moments would allow Armstrong to shine, but his self-effacing modesty about his wonderful voice is a pleasure to see.
Go and see Alexander Armstrong blossom in this short run – his cabaret debut surely marks the beginning of a very interesting journey.
Alexander Armstrong. The Hippodrome Casino, London WC2H 7JH. 29-31 Jan and 1-2 Feb, 20:00 or 21:00. £25-35. www.hippodromecasino.com
Read our exclusive interview with Alexander Armstrong here.