After his first number, accompanied only by musical director, Adam Dennis, on keyboards, Lee paused to introduce the rest of his band as they joined him on stage - Richie Blake on bass guitar, John Pearce on violin, Ian Whitehead on drums and Tommy Emmerton on lead & acoustic guitar - then it was on with the show.
Much as we were enjoying the early numbers, some of us were keenly aware that on this night, there was another, much larger audience also enjoying the music of Mead... so the excitement leapt up several notches when, after his first few songs, Lee said he'd been on three different TV channels that week! BBC One, of course, in Holby on Tuesday, then ITV for Lorraine on Wednesday and this very night Channel 5 for Jane McDonald & Friends. Surely he wouldn't just tease us with that news... no, of course he wouldn't. He went on to explain that Jane had asked him to sing something from The Greatest Showman and he thought he'd sing it for us tonight... YES! It's always a thrill to hear a new song from Lee, but this - From Now On - had caused quite a flurry of praise from those lucky enough to be in the studio when the show was recorded, so anticipation was at fever pitch.
Finding his connection to a song is always key to Lee and quoting the lyric "I drank champagne with kings and queens, the politicians praised my name" he added with a laugh that he'd met the Duke of Edinburgh and drunk champagne at No 10, but that ultimately what he took from the song is that however much success you might enjoy, it's family that's most important. Then he sang... and I can only echo Jane's words - "WHAT a performance!"
I think he must have blown my mind a little, as my recollection of the rest of the concert is rather hazy! I do recall feeling just a little sorry for those on the front row who watched chunks of the show on their mobile phones as they filmed it, and rather more so for those around them for whom it was a huge distraction ... you've splashed out on a front row seat, a gorgeous, super-talented man is a few feet away, singing his heart out, and you're watching a tiny figure on a glass screen? Madness!
I also recall the groan of disappointment that greeted his "we're getting to the end of the show" being met with "we could do a Ken Dodd" before adding that if you go on too long the venue charges you more ... cue a shout from the audience "we could have a whip round"! I think some were half way to grabbing their wallets before Lee took a random leap to a recent chat with his mum... about bows (to rhyme with cows not toes)! There's the normal sort of bow - he bends - a simple acknowledgement of audience appreciation, and then there's the overly dramatic bow with 'thank you' flourishes as practiced by "people with massive egos", which he also demonstrated hilariously... and rather too well! Finally the coat made its entrance, ably assisted by Lee, and it was sing and sway time once more.
So while some of the detail of Stockport is lost to me, my overwhelming memory is of the 'rightness' of this show. I love the set Lee has put together for his 10 Years tour - the musical theatre numbers never fail to get a huge reaction from the audience, perhaps because Lee's innate ability to act a song is most strongly felt when people already know the story behind the words, but for me it's the rest of the set that shows the full range of both his vocal talent and his consummate skill as a performer. His way of introducing a song with a few words about why he's chosen to include it means long-familiar songs are often heard in a new light and can pack an emotional punch all the more powerful for being unexpected.
With the signing taking place at the back of the Stalls within the auditorium itself, the queue (which seemed to consist of pretty much the entire audience!) lined the aisles. Joining the end of it, we were perfectly placed to greet Lee with a whoop as he emerged from backstage and to witness his spot-on Norman Wisdom walk as he followed the FOH manager up the centre aisle to reach his table. A long wait ahead, we passed the time by first watching (six of us gathered around my iPad), then animatedly discussing Lee's performance on Jane McDonald and Friends. Naturally, the production was much bigger than we'd witnessed live on stage earlier in the evening, but his vocal shone through in both ... building from the reflective intensity of those almost whispered opening lines, to full soaring power, then throttling back for the final words - sung straight to camera on the show but losing none of their power when delivered into the dark of the auditorium. Incidentally, a little birdie tells me the version broadcast on Channel 5 went out 'as live', no post-edit required. That's pretty rare in TV-land and I'm very glad the powers that be embraced the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" ethos!
On Saturday, the people of Loughborough (and beyond!) had turned out in force for the second of the weekend's concerts, filling the Town Hall, now a thriving theatre and gallery, to capacity. There was a fantastic buzz in the minutes before the lights dimmed and when the cheers for Adam are louder and longer than usually greet Lee, you know it's going to be a special night... Lee clearly felt it too, leaning in to his mic to utter just one word "blimey!" before he took us into his world of Pure Imagination. I had a momentary and thankfully unfounded fear that the noise wouldn't quieten, but it was the very best type of crowd, pin-drop quiet as Lee sang (unless their participation was encouraged), erupting into raucous noise when he finished! And as we've seen before (Lytham and Malvern spring to mind), Lee greedily feeds off the energy of such a crowd taking an already brilliant performance to an even higher level. I'm not alone in thinking so, check out this review!
There's something about playing to an audience like this that seems to make Lee focus on his good fortune - he talked a couple of times about how much in his industry is about timing and luck, citing both his chance to sing for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice during the early Any Dream Will Do auditions and the (very astute, I might say) musical director on the Miss Saigon UK tour who recommended the producers see Lee as a potential replacement for the alternate/first cover Chris who'd gone sick. What he doesn't say, and knowing what I do of him I wouldn't expect him to, is that while luck plays a part, it was his own talent and actions that put him in the right place at the right time to take advantage of it ... his courage in accepting that offer to sing even though he was already through to the next round, his dedication in watching Ramin Karimloo as Chris from the wings 'like a hawk' even though as a second cover his chance of ever playing the role were tiny. Good luck comes to those who work hard!
Among the random things I remember from this show is that Tommy is not only a leading light in the 'curry club', but also carries a full coffee kit on tour, making what Lee claimed to be the "best coffee I've ever had" for him earlier in the day. Going on to exclaim "we've got top players here tonight", Lee added with typical humility "as a singer, you're nothing without your band", and while I'd challenge that statement a little, there's no doubt that his utterly brilliant band are an integral part of this hugely sucessful tour.
The first half ended with a standing ovation (for Close Every Door) and I thought the second would start with one too ... Feeling Good is the perfect song for Lee right now and if the length of time Lee held that last BIG "feeeeeeeeeling so good" is any indication, he was feeling VERY good indeed... and the whoops that burst into the silence that followed it confirmed the audience were too! The second half set was a little shorter than usual, whether a deliberate choice to protect his voice with another show the following night or a song accidentally skipped over on the setlist, we'll never know, and though I'd love to have heard exactly how this amazing crowd would have reacted to Paint It Black, somehow on this night, it didn't really matter. The whole place was buzzing and I can't see how people could have left any happier than they did.
Back For Good was always going to be wonderful with this crowd - I reckon Lee came as close as he'll ever get to his 'O2 moment', a sea of torches held aloft as we sang along throughout. What a joy to see Lee saying before the final segment how much it all meant to him "this is what I live for, what I dreamed of doing... it's mind-blowing really, I genuinely never thought I'd have my own show like this. You've been wonderful tonight, thank you." Nah... thank YOU Lee, for this night and all the other times, for the laughs and the tears, the music and the memories, for the fun and the friends and all the adventures we've shared.
Anthem earned Lee another standing ovation and though Blackbird is officially the last song of the set, it rarely garners the same reaction, partly because it's a beautiful, still song that doesn't generate that explosive energy and partly because the regulars know there's more to come... but this time, the whole crowd rose once more to cheer Lee and his band, staying on their feet while he disappeared into the wings, going wild when he reappeared in THE coat, clapping, swaying, singing along to the end. Lee has said since that it felt like a rock concert before he even started... and while Any Dream Will Do may not be the typical rock concert closer, there's no song more closely associated with Lee and we all know the words... a perfect finale! As it finished, the roar of the crowd grew even louder... cheering, whistling, stamping as he and his band took their final bows.
As the lights came up, all I could see was people grinning, heads shaking slightly in disbelief, laughing with sheer exhilaration. Wow, what a night! It seems pretty redundant to pick a highlight from a show that shone bright from start to finish, but there were two songs that completely took my breath away ... Why God Why and Anthem. Saying as much to Lee later, he told me he'd decided that night to sing Why God Why to one point in the room. Whatever it was that he did, it put him totally in the moment and took us all there with him. Simply stunning.
So, Sunday... south to Epsom and its Playhouse and how could Lee possibly follow that?! We had a chance to chat to him at the pre-show Meet & Greet and it was lovely to share the 'wow!' that both he and we had felt the night before, but his excitement for the next gig was also clear. He had friends and family in - Rhydian, past and present Holby colleagues including Joe McFadden (see pics!), his girlfriend Issy - and they were going to get a SHOW! Plus, he had a guest, some chap called Stephen Rahman-Hughes... and when Lee and Steve get together, entertainment is guaranteed! (BREAKING! Their Together Again gig at Pizza Express Live, Holborn on Sunday 7 October, first mentioned back at May's Newport gig, has JUST gone on sale - go if you can, it'll be a blast!)
Having enjoyed From Now On on both Friday and Saturday nights, we were looking forward to a third performance... and there he goes with the build-up - on three TV channels this week, Friday night Channel 5 and a song from The Greatest Showman on Jane McDonald and Friends... "but I'm not going to sing that tonight!" I thought for a moment there was going to be a mutiny... but he couldn't keep a straight face for long, and it was obvious as he waxed lyrical about singing with a big gospel choir on the show, adding that his buddy Rhydian "who's in tonight" was there as well, that he was not going to disappoint his Epsom crowd, his casual "hope you like it" making me grin at the concept that it was possible we might not.
In the absence of a gospel choir, John's violin sings loud in Adam's fab arrangement - I often think what a genius choice it was to include a 'string section' in the band for this tour, and also what a genius is John! But back to the song... I'm still very much in the 'wow' phase of getting to know it. I'm not sure I'll ever leave the 'wow' phase to be honest, but there is something very special about witnessing the first few performances of a new song.
Stephen took his turn on the stage - singing one of my favourites, The Journey Home from his first lead role in a West End show (Bombay Dreams) and going "old school" with Unchained Melody. On his return, Lee revealed he's a little envious of his multi-talented friend - actor, singer, choreographer - you've no need to be Lee. You have your own very special talents! Then it was time for a double-bill of musical theatre classics I will never tire of hearing from Lee, who introduced the first with "I've sung this at a little jazz club in Chelsea to 70/80 people and to 5,000 in the Royal Albert Hall and it always resonates... this is Bring Him Home". It was stunning... that final note drifting on and on and on, so pure it gave me goosebumps and left me powerless to react for a second or two after it finally faded to silence. Then the cheers around me broke through and I joined in, clapping, smiling, pausing only to wipe away a tear. Then on to Why God Why and still, it gets me every time. I remember like it was yesterday the first time I heard Lee sing it - in Dublin with the wonderful RTÉ orchestra - and ever since one of my few regrets in life is that I never saw Lee play Chris.
Jumping to the second half and Paint It Black returned to its rightful place in the set - Lee telling how the Any Dream Will Do vocal coach advised him to think of it as Joseph in his cell, in a very dark place... now, I saw a new production of Joseph the other day, my first since Lee left the London production, (at Kilworth House Theatre - it was fabulous and I just booked to see it again) and I tried to see this element to Joseph in his cell... but no, nothing. Don't get me wrong, Kilworth's Joseph is great, has a wonderful voice (and even has curls), but I now have a whole new appreciation of just how good Lee was in that role! Andrew Lloyd Webber's comment during rehearsals that Lee was "the best actor we've had for Joseph" was spot on.
Also back on the bill for the first time this weekend was another favourite of mine, Maria. Following immediately after Paint It Black it offers one of the most extraordinary juxtapositions you're ever likely to find in a concert! And changing the mood once again, Steve returned to the stage for a duet... I'm trying to recall if we've heard these two singing Everything together before, a distant voice in my ridiculously poor memory says yes, but I do know that it WORKS... brilliantly! Especially when it follows Steve's "I'm just back from Malaysia and I'm a little upset because while I was away something happened... behind my back, but in front of the nation... on TV... a proposal! And I feel a little bit hurt..." Bearing in mind the lyrics of Everything, that lead in meant there was a LOT of laughter during the song, but then there's always a lot of laughter when these two get together. Can I mention again... Together Again, Sunday 7 October, London - ON SALE NOW!
It's clear Anthem is special to Lee - it secured him his very first professional job, on the Pride of Bilbao car ferry, and his first musical theatre job in the ensemble of the Joseph UK tour, and indirectly perhaps the role of Joseph in the West End... when he sang it for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice during Any Dream Will Do auditions. That may be why the song is so imporant to Lee, but to me it's been wedged deep in my heart since I heard it in the first live performance of Chess back in the 1980s. Hearing Lee sing it will never grow old. But where it sits in the current set list heralds the end of the show... bitter sweet.
There were Q&As each evening, bringing a mix of the familar - favourite role, favourite song, what role do you still want to play, what advice would you give to others - and a few surprises:
- the lady from the University of Salford who talked about a new partnership with playwright Jim Cartwright and asked would you like to meet Jim and have him write something with you in mind? Because I think you're an actor who is completed underrated... - from their exchange later at the signing table, I wonder whether we will hear more of this in time. She also asked do you fancy playing Hamlet? - Lee talked of the challenge of Oscar Wilde adaptation 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' which he loved, but "I've never had the passion to play Shakespeare"
- any embarassing moments on stage? - "the loincloth falling off!" ... not on stage, and perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but two girls came up to me in Trafalgar Square recently and asked if I minded taking a photo. I said "of course" and held the camera up selfie-style only for them to say "no, of us!" Getting approached as often as he does, his assumption was entirely natural ... having the humility to share the story is pure Lee.
- Hi Lee, I'm Mary - "that's my cousin" - who's your favourite cousin? and I'm filming this to send to the others! ... with great diplomacy, Lee chose recent addition to the family, second cousin, baby Alfie, who he'd met for the first time earlier that day!
- Good evening Lee - "ooh, a man in my audience!" - If you could play any role in any show, what? Now this has been asked many times, but Lee's answer was one I'd not heard before - "Jekyll and Hyde to play Jekyll, or Hyde!" ... it's a wonderful musical and it's been a while since it's been on in the West End. Great leading man role, challenging to play and a wonderful song This is the Moment
- Have you thought about a film career? - "I'd love to do film" ... I went to LA for pilot season and the one year I went, it was the writers' strike! So having gone out for four months, I had only two auditions in a month and came home! I learned a lot - I learned I never want to live in LA! It's very self-absorbed.
There's so much more I could add, but I've been whiffling on for far too long... I say it every time and I'll say it again - this tour is a total joy. Whether you've loved Lee since Any Dream Will Do days (or even before!), first saw him in "Joseph" or "Wicked" or "Legally Blonde" or "Chitty", discovered him on TV in Casualty or Holby, or say to yourself "Lee who?" as you read your local theatre's What's On brochure, it's a true celebration of a fantastic decade of music from a real master of his craft.
Here's to the next ten years, and more imminently to the last nine gigs on this brilliant 10 Year Anniverary tour. Tickets are available still for all dates, and for one of two special Lee Mead Presents... shows in London in August, but are in very short supply at some venues, so if you're thinking about booking, don't ponder too long!
See Lee's full concert and events schedule (including past appearances) at CONCERT & LIVE EVENTS.