REVIEW: Lost West End Vintage (Volume 2)

Recording CoverHere's another invaluable compilation album from Stage Door Records. Like the first Lost West End Vintage set last year, this collection offers a window into a chapter of British theatrical history that has left surprisingly few ripples, even though a good number of American musicals from the same period (1943 to 1962, broadly analogous to Broadway's so-called 'golden age') are still in the repertoire. Perhaps the musicals included here are not always lost masterpieces – whatever their merits may (once) have been, I don't imagine anybody is holding their breath for a revival of Dear Miss Phoebe or Cage Me a Peacock or The Love Doctor – but a great deal of this music is well worth your attention. I was already familiar with very little of the material included here, and a lot of it is tremendously entertaining.

That's at least partly thanks to an absolutely dazzling set of performers. As before, the first disc contains songs from London cast recordings, and the second consists of what the CD booklet describes as "covers and other rarities." Between those two groups – and if you have the album on as background listening the line between the two discs will very quickly blur – you'll get a whistle-stop tour through a kind of homegrown popular music that has all but vanished, performed with wonderful relish by an era-defining collection of singers ranging from Millicent Martin, Jeremy Brett, and Thelma Ruby to Elaine Delmar, Frank Sinatra, and even Spike Milligan.

Of course there are plenty of highlights. Dora Bryan and Paul Godfrey charm their way through the delightful It Would Cramp My Style from Vivian Ellis's The Water Gipsies, and a young Barbara Windsor gives a lovely, plaintive reading of Where Do Little Birds Go? from Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. If you've forgotten – and why have you? – what a wonderful job Elizabeth Seal did with the title song from Irma La Douce, it's here to jog your memory. Moving into the second set, it's perfectly clear that Pedro the Fisherman – from a long-forgotten show called The Lisbon Story – is not the greatest song Julie Andrews ever recorded, but her performance of it is simply glorious. Noel Coward offers a drily funny rendition of Uncle Harry from his own Pacific 1860, in which he did not appear. Joan Sims's You Never Know With Men – another song from The Water Gipsies – is an absolute delight, and reminds us what a glorious, distinctive performer she was. Ivor Novello's If She'd Only Looked My Way from Gay's the Word sees Frank Sinatra straying into Bing Crosby territory, and is none the worse for it; it's a lovely performance of a lovely song. The bonus track – Denis Quilley's live performance of the title song from a show called A Girl Called Jo – is a fascinating treasure. The show is long forgotten; the gorgeous music is by John Pritchett and Stanley Myers, the heartfelt lyrics are by Peter Myers, Alec Grahame, and David Climie, the show opened in 1955 and was relatively short-lived, and Quilley's stunning performance is one of those that makes you stop whatever you're doing and listen until he's finished.

And that's not this compilation's biggest ace. Hearing Spike Milligan croon his way, with absolute sincerity, through the lovely Wish I Knew from a show called Lady at the Wheel – music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Robin Beaumont – is genuinely surprising. It's a straightforward, uncontrived, tremendously affecting presentation of a sweetly touching song, and it's about a million miles from the irascibly surreal comic persona that underpins most of Milligan's best-known work.

Overall? This is a fascinating collection, full of delightful musical surprises, and it's been put together beautifully, with a clear, informative booklet giving the dates, writing credits, and length of run of each of the shows the collection references. It's a captivating musical nostalgia trip as well as a charming history lesson, and if you're at all interested in the history of the British musical it's something you'll want to own.


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