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Kris Rawlinson and Friends, The Pheasantry, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Musical theatre performers who want to put together a cabaret often struggle to come up with a theme for their show. For pianist and musical arranger Kris Rawlinson, the theme seems simple: bring together a group of singer friends, and give them songs that suit them.

Such simplicity does at times have a tendency to skew towards the predictable. Thankfully, the obligatory Jason Robert Brown song (The Last Five Years’I’m Still Hurting) is dispensed with at the top of the show, sung beautifully by Gloria Onitiri, accompanied by Rawlinson on piano and Natalie Hancock on cello, who is a presence throughout and brings depths to several of Rawlinson’s arrangements.

The first act of Rawlinson’s set is largely conventional in terms of cabaret numbers by young performers. Kayleigh McKnight’s rendition of Jonathan Reid Gealt’s Am Yours is the first of thankfully several appearances by this performer, while Ambra Caserotti delivers Nothing Stops Another Day from Ghost: the Musical with a touching clarity.

But it is where the saccharine is left behind, and the musical genre’s comedic potential is touched upon, that both Rawlinson and his singers really blossom. From Adam Gwon’s blisteringly comic Fine from his musical Ordinary Days – a tale of a bickering couple played by real-life duo Sam Lupton and Katherine Moraz – to McKnight’s return as a crossword addict who fights with her partner as she struggles to complete the New York Times puzzle, and Alexandra Da Silva’s Screw Loose from the musical Cry-Baby, the fun that these people are having performing with each other shines through.

A similar mix of ballads and comedy songs is present in the second act, although it feels slightly looser and more relaxed, allowing the comic numbers to work even better. Dominant are two unusual arrangements of classic songs – something that Rawlinson, whose West End Switched Off acoustic arrangements specialise in finding new takes on recognisable tunes, has plenty of experience with. Onitiri, an alumna of Whitney Houston musical The Bodyguard delights with a slow, soulful version of Houston’s dance number How Will I Know, while Lupton and Moraz’s rendition of Frozen’s ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman’ as a fiery tango is a hilariously inappropriate reading.

Between songs, Rawlinson’s patter is unpolished – sometimes delightfully so, as at several points he seems to criticise musicals from which we later hear several numbers. It also comes with a refreshing sense of modesty, with a man uncomfortable singing his own praises and looking embarrassed when his performer friends talk about his finer qualities. And after a final trio of great performances – Da Silva’s Calm from Ordinary Days, Lupton’s raucous rendition of Alexander Bermange’s I’m in Love, an ode to a sex toy, and a final barnstorming performance of Let it Go by Jodie Steele – Rawlinson is content to let his guests take their bows, before slinking off without taking his own, well deserved, praise.

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