Varla Jean Merman & Well-Strung

Reviewer's rating

It’s not every day that a string quartet gets a thunderous reception, and cheers of ‘Encore!’ but then Well-Strung are no ordinary string quartet.

Making their London debut at The Leicester Square Theatre, and sharing the bill with Drag Queen Varla Jean Merman, herself re-visiting London after a gap of ten years, these four incredibly talented American musicians – Edmund on First Violin, Chris on Second Violin, Trevor on Viola, and Daniel on Cello – not only deliver string playing that would be at home on any London concert hall stage, but also manage to tread that difficult line between presenting a popular, and populist repertoire without losing any of their undoubted musicianship. Oh, and did I mention that they also sing?

The evening is presented as a double bill and on press night the first half of the show was drag artiste Varla Jean Merman.

Varla Jean Merman, glamorous sequinned creation of US entertainer Jeff Roberson is the sort of act that any self-respecting gay man would be happy to see after midnight at The White Swan though in the heart of London’s West End, and a little after six thirty in the evening, she seems curiously out of place.

Her section of the show is a selection of songs and chat, with mini-video films covering costume changes. The films were possibly more successful than the songs, which rather than building to a climax, tended to give you the joke up-front, then batter you about the head with it for two and a half minutes. Subtlety is not one virtue you could ever accuse her of.

One of the short films following up on her wish to write a book for children was genuinely funny, and the fact that she sang Sondheim’s ‘Children Will Listen’ from Into The Woods whilst it was playing added a genuine poignancy, harpooned immediately afterwards by just about the cleanest joke in her whole routine. ‘Children are like sponges. Full of bacteria’.

☆ ☆ ☆

The second half of the bill however was a revelation. The four buffed and good-looking guys who make up Well-Strung start their section of the show as if they are the average string-playing guys next door. Put together by second violinist Christopher Marchant, together with producer Mark Cortale, they might be described as a gay, classical ‘One Direction’; only in this ‘boy band’ all four of the guys are consummate musicians.

Seated in a semi-circle they begin. Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The boys are playing games with us. The music somehow changes subtly, and one of them begins to sing. The music becomes Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, but somehow retains its ‘Mozartiness’.

They continue through a series of hits, both sung and played, from the last four centuries, Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’, Rihanna, Whitney (well, actually ‘I will always Love You is by Dolly Parton, but we’ll forgive them this momentary lapse), Vivaldi, Dvorak, then what was for me the hight-light of the concert as Daniel, the cellist, played Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and as I have never heard it played before.

Beginning with an exemplary execution and attack, Daniel starts to play. Then, as if providing the soundtrack to an act of love making, he pulls the music first this way then that using a rubato which is incredible for its risk taking.

He speeds up, he slows down, and all the time holding the audience on the edge of their seats. If you go to see this show for no other reason, astonishing, bravura performance alone is worth the ticket price.

Donna Drake’s direction has the quartet talking directly to the audience with a winning honesty about their sexuality, their family lives, and their shared love of music. She’s a safe pair of hands, having been in the original cast of A Chorus Line, and pitches the tone of the evening perfectly.

As if having a fluent musicality in their given instruments weren’t enough they all also sing together as well as any boy band. And without the aid of auto-tune.

As they were keen to point out, they’re about to start on a tour of North America taking in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. In fact the only disappointment is that their stay in London is going to be so short. Final show Saturday 21st September. Three stars for Varla Jean, Five stars for Well-Strung.

☆ ☆ ☆☆☆