Electrolyte

This show did not have an auspicious start – six performers milling around the stage, sharing in-jokes and nattering away – but appearances can be deceptive.

Led by Olivia Sweeney as narrator Jessie, this mixed troupe of musicians and actors combine fluidly to tell a rambunctious story of love, life, and loss, at blistering pace and with fierce emotion.

Sweeney dominates, striding lankily around the stage all mouthy and boisterous – at least on the surface. Her aggressive Leeds tones are met by the sublime voice of Robyn Sinclair as rising artist Allie; given her exceptional vocals, it’s a role that doesn’t need much acting.

Writer James Meteyard plays a vital and redemptive bit part, alongside Megan Ashley, Ben Simon, and Chris Georgiou, who predominantly work the audio side of the piece with occasional small speaking parts.

It’s a style that has been termed gig theatre, but to label it is to cheapen it: what Electrolyte is, is exceptional storytelling. While sharper audience members may guess the key twists ahead of time, the delight is in Meteyard’s script: an extended poem that despite its dominant rhymes feels entirely unforced in its delivery.

This isn’t tricksy, affected performance poetry, it is skilled and pleasurable writing in a theatrical tradition that goes back to the iambic pentameter and the rhyming couplet. This is a story of youth, pharmaceutical excess, a search for family, and switched perceptions: hardly alien concepts to Shakespeare, who also threw in the odd song – and no one calls him gig theatre.

Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction is disarmingly smart. While there is undoubted tension and drama, in between scenes and at the edges of the action the cast remain extraordinarily warm and informal, playful as genuine friends. We are lulled into the theatrical deceit, making the emotionally wrenching events played out all the more impactful.

This isn’t a show to see for its format or construction though. It’s a show to see because it is exceptionally well written and performed and because like the best theatre, it takes you places you didn’t expect to go.

David McAlmont

Skulking on stage in his skinny jeans, white t-shirt, and fulsome beard, David McAlmont cuts an unprepossessing figure.

At one point he seems to hide behind the piano. The lights are set in a soulless white wash.

But he has more music in his little figure than most people experience in a lifetime, and a voice that transcends any diminutive visuals.

Performing from Billie Holiday’s Carnegie Hall set list, songs like What A Little Moonlight, Don’t Explain, Nobody’s Business and Loverman come alive afresh. McAlmont doesn’t feel the need to insert gimmicks to reinvent these standards, but still makes them distinctly his own.

His five piece band don’t quite match up (though pianist Alex Webb has bursts of flair) but a missed cue aside, that doesn’t overly distract from the main event: McAlmont’s superlative voice.

He closed his encore with Body & Soul, and his voice was charged throughout the gig with an abundance of both. A great start to this year’s festival.

Travels in Light

This premiere of several pieces spanned three churches in the centre of Norwich, in the type of promenade performance that has become synonymous with the Voice Project choir.

The demeanour was studied and slightly dour, all funeral dress and blank expressions.

The vocals in St George’s and St Peter Hungate were superb from both the soloists (Lisa Cassidy, Sianed Jones, Sian Croose, Jeremy Avis and Jonathan Baker) and the 100-plus choir, but there wasn’t much joy to lift a cold winter’s night.

A move to the United Reform Church saw a shift in tone with the ecclesiastical tradition giving way to hints of jazz and musical theatre, and a more upbeat edge with renewed capacity to surprise.

Previous shows have made better use of their unique surroundings.

Here the changing venues proved more distraction than enhancement; a single location might have given a better platform for the undoubted talent of the performers.

Klanghaus: Four Storeys

Standing outside of a disused furniture store on a cold December night waiting for Klanghaus to start, those discarded Christmas party invitations might start to be tempting –  but this music and art cross over show from Norwich band The Neutrinos and long-term artist collaborator Sal Pittman is worth freezing your arts off for.

Inside you are teased though a series of rooms with Alice in Wonderland decoration – miniature beds, wooden chairs half swallowed up by concrete floors, telephones spotlighted beckoningly on walls – and projected films and unexpected art, while opportunely seduced with music from the band as they promenade too: sometimes with you, sometimes against you, sometimes entirely for themselves.

At times it feels like stumbling into a series of live music video: a drummer and guitarist trapped in an office and forced to play; a woodland scene where saws become bowstrings; a giant ballroom where lazy Americana drifts to your ears as effortlessly as the light dances over the tarnished walls.

For all this to be found on Muspole Street, in the dark, in winter, is a true box of delights.

Billy Bragg

The Bard of Barking opened this sold-out gig with a classic Bragg number, the Milkman of Human Kindness, and the crowd never stopped drinking it up

Bragg is often pigeon-holed as a protest singer but his greatest strength is not his politics but his poetry; he is a superlative lyricist and that combines with emotional warmth and intellectual curiosity to create some cracking songs.

His between tunes patter is also a step above that of most artists. Not for Bragg the quick check with the theatre staff about which local rivalry or hot topic to mention. Instead we got affectionate anecdotes about the tremendous past of the Hippodrome venue, a short history lesson about the links between Great Yarmouth and his Essex birthplace, and – of course – some impassioned pleading over the EU referendum (followed, naturally, by a charged rendition of There Is Power In A Union).

The set list included covers of Anais Mitchell and Woody Guthrie songs, as well as some well inspired re-workings of his own back catalogue taking in The Warmest Room, A Lover Sings, Greetings To The New Brunette, Handyman Blues, and Levi Stubbs’ Tears, in many cases joined by CJ Hillman on pedal slide guitar to add a lazy, country, vibe.

A feisty A New England was the closing crowd pleaser that saw the audience on their feet and shouting their lungs out with a big a roar as any of the tigers that once prowled the circular stage.

With the historic Hippodrome and Billy Bragg combined we got two national treasures for the price of one, and an exceptional gig to round of the festival’s modern music programme.

The Hot Sardines

There can’t be many bands that count a tap dancer as one of their percussionists, but that’s not even the most extraordinary thing about the Hot Sardines.

That honour goes to their stellar musicianship: they know their heritage, know their instruments, and best of all know how to use and abuse that to have a lot of creative, energetic and audibly delicious fun.

Their set touched on Gershwin, Fats Waller, and even Disney, all laced with their own unique strain of showmanship.

Bandleader Bibs Palazzo was at the heart of the action, a fantastically talented pianist (and whistler) whose open-fronted piano is as stylish as his playing, with lead singer Miz Elizabeth adding plenty of pizzazz with a mixture of French and English vocals topped with a New York twang.

With an accomplished band around them bringing in crisp clear tones for the Charleston or breathy, messy, sleazy notes for a sublime Summertime, there wasn’t anything more you could ask of them.

The only thing missing was the chance to get up and dance: hard to help thinking that the Norfolk and Norwich Festival’s spectacular Spiegeltent would have been a better spiritual home than the Theatre Royal, but it would have required a week-long residency to pack in Tuesday night’s sell-out crowd.

Oh, and the tap dancer? Fast Eddy Francisco is not just a pair of pretty feet; as a well as some sweet dance breaks he also pulled out a ukelele for one number.

Told you these guys are talented.

Bruce Forsyth

What drives an 87-year-old man to spend two hours on a Norwich stage? For Sir Bruce Forsyth, the answer seems to be a genuine love of entertaining.

Sir Bruce has been performing since he was just 14, with a career that spans singing, dancing, comedy and, perhaps most-famously, game show hosting.

He’s been made a CBE, an OBE and a knight but what he still seems to craves most is an audience’s affection.

Monday night’s show at the Norwich Theatre Royal was a warm up for his return to the London Palladium, his spiritual home, later this month and, despite his long career, was his first visit to Norwich.

Sure the jokes were cheesy, the catchphrases predictable, the singing and piano playing a little hit and miss, the dancing (sat down tap) – er – measured.

But if I’m even alive by 87, let alone commanding a full house to a standing ovation, it’ll be a bloody miracle; and it’s hard to imagine Brucie’s former Strictly Come Dancing co-host Tess Daly ordering a breakfast without the help of an autocue, let alone storming her way through a two-hour set with self-deprecation and a constant, ironic, knowing twinkle.

He was strongest when 
interacting with the audience: getting four men up on stage to act as his backing dancers; one lucky lady to dance with him; and pledging to support the Canaries in a question and answer session.

But from start to finish this living legend had the audience in the palm of his hand.

So, yes, Brucie, it was very nice to see you.

You’re one of a kind.

Molotov Jukebox

If the Spiegeltent hadn’t been standing for a week you might have worried for its structural integrity, such was the thumping, stamping raucous reception afforded to Molotov Jukebox.

Providing the final night musical send off for this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival, this melting-pot band bought strains of gypsy, ska, reggae and rap to the glittering venue.

Cleared of the usual seating the sell-out Saturday night audience was free to dance, shout and generally sweat-out the two week festival, giving very vocal appreciation to the six-piece fronted by Game of Thrones and Harry Potter actress Natalia Tena.

Tena’s fine sparky singing and accordion playing mix with Sam Apley’s violin and Angus Moncrieff’s trumpet to form the bedrock of the band’s sound. Bassist Tom Wilson suffered from a few early feedback problems but they didn’t daunt anyone either on or off stage, preferring to keep diving headlong into the music.

From the high-octane notes of Something For The Weekend and Gypsy Funeral to the more tender pacing of Trying and Don’t Panic this was an explosive set and a brilliant end to the main portion of the festival – but with their first album Carnival Flower only recently released this could be just the start for Molotov Jukebox.

Camille O’Sullivan

I have a new infatuation, and her name is Camille O’Sullivan.

Concerts can sometimes be pedestrian affairs but with O’Sullivan this isn’t just about fantastic music, it’s also about overwhelming spectacle.

The Irish singer has a world-class voice that flexes from gravelly and aggressive rock to the purest, tenderest tones and a stage presence that demands to be observed.

Each song is a piece of theatre in miniature: her skirt hitched up for a raucous rendition of Jacque Brel’s Port of Amsterdam; wearing masks for an intimidating romp through Tom Wait’s God’s Away on Business; still and pensive for a tear-jerking performance of Declan O’Rourke’s Galileo; perched intimately on the edge of the stage for Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No 2; donning killer sparkling red heels and ending up on her back for Kirsty MacColl’s In These Shoes?

It’s clear that O’Sullivan loves to perform and she should: she is brilliant at it. Her personality – and love for spontaneous miaowing – is infectious, and it’s obvious why she has a loyal following for her live shows: after just one show I’m joining it.

There are a few tickets left for her final show on Wednesday: snap them up if you can, it’s a festival must.

How Like An Angel

There is an inscription in one of the chapels at Norwich Cathedral that reads “except for the still part there would be no dance”.

In How Like An Angel that still point is a transfixed, emotionally toyed with audience that sit in the heart of the church as a phenonemal combination of music and physical theatre unfolds around them.

A collaboration between Australian circus company Circa and vocal ensemble I Fagiolini the show was first performed in Australia, where it received some criticism for being performed in cathedrals.

But they seem a perfect venue, not just for the blend of spiritual choral music that pervades the performance: the small choir literally pursuing the audience with original and traditional music from across the centuries and continents.

The dance mixes daring aerial moves with physical, catwalk theatricality, as the angels falteringly grow accustomed to their bodies, collaborative and playful at first.

With confidence comes arrogance and competiveness – literally climbing the pole in a allegory that matches Paradise Lost.

This is an astounding and awe-inspiring group of strong and powerful actor-acrobats backed by an inspiring score.

A true testament, as Hamlet’s words suggest, to the glory of man – and some would say the glory of God.