Review: Stages (Musical theatre cruise)
The UK's musical theatre-themed cruise returns for a second journey
What do you get if you put Sheridan Smith, Collabro and Alfie Boe together in a confined space for four days with three thousand musical theatre fans? A ship full of very happy punters, for a start.
The second iteration of Stages, billed as a 'floating festival' geared specifically to the musical theatre/cruising markets, built on the inaugural trip a year ago to create a Monday-to-Friday extravaganza of performers and creatives, offering an unmatched, up-close experience in a unique environment. To say it creates an atmosphere unlike any other is something of an understatement.
Where else could you watch Britain's Got Talent superstars Collabro give a barnstorming main-stage performance, then pop across to an on-board karaoke bar and fortuitously catch Rachel Tucker knocking out a casual tune during some down time? Or listen to Adrian Mole writers Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger tell of their journey to the West End before enjoying one-time Elphaba Alice Fearn belt out some massive Stephen Schwartz numbers in a special tribute show?
And that, of course, is the unique selling point of Stages. Whatever your taste in musical theatre, it is going to be catered for somewhere on this huge menu. In fact, the only real problem with the whole packed schedule is navigating it. For the traditionalists, there's a showcase of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs reimagined by performers such as Noel Sullivan and Phantom's current Christine, Kelly Mathieson. For late-night laughs there's an effervescent Joe Pasquale. And for sheer MT royalty, there are the headliners, the ever-popular Alfie Boe and – for me, the overall highlight – Sheridan Smith, revealing that she's pregnant and about to take a year off, but delivering a blistering hour of magical musical moments from Legally Blonde to Funny Girl.
In between, every waking moment is crammed with activity, whether it's hearing how premier-league producer Paul Taylor-Mills puts a show together or singing along to one of the many cabaret performers on board. The sailing side of things becomes almost incidental – there was barely a murmur when it was revealed that the original destination of Dublin had been switched to Cork for the single day in port – yet all the trappings of life at sea are also on tap, from spa treatments to surfing, accompanied by a vast range of non-stop eating and drinking options.
It's impossible to do everything, and every passenger must find their own path through the welter of festival events, often doing so in tuxedoes and tiaras or dressed as their favourite musical theatre character. But whether you're sampling Sondheim in a superb Jenna Russell masterclass or taking cocktails as Collabro 'bring him home', there really is nothing quite like this unforgettable experience.
Stages 2020 will cruise from Sunday September 27 to Thursday October 1 2020. Acts already announced include John Barrowman, Lea Salonga, Bonnie Langford.