Prom 58: An Evening with Michael Ball, Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London

The presence of Michael Ball, a West End star, at the Proms has made hackles rise. Ball himself refers to the controversy: a song from Patience is pointedly prefaced by the observation that the operetta "pokes fun at the pretentiousness of people who believe high art is the only art". But the whole hoo-ha seems to me absurd. The Proms have done musicals before - remember Wonderful Town? - and if they can devote an evening to film music, why not to its theatrical cousin?

My cavils are practical rather than purist. Though Ball has a big stage presence, the Albert Hall is not ideally suited to lyric nuance: too many numbers are banged remorselessly across. The BBC Concert Orchestra, so sensitive to the atmosphere of The Water Diviner's Tale earlier in the day, offer a generalised big-band sound. And not all the numbers gain from being taken out of context. Asking us to make up our own minds about the comparison of Lloyd Webber to Sondheim, Ball juxtaposes two romantic songs from Phantom of the Opera and Passion. What he fails to point out is that the Sondheim number, Loving You, gains extra irony from being addressed to a supposedly unattractive woman.

But Ball occupies the stage with burly confidence and knows how to work an audience: he gets virtually the whole Albert Hall clapping along to Godspell's Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord. At his best, he delivers a song with unforced simplicity, and is a showman to his fingertips, even down to the mock-Sinatra tie-loosening gesture betokening intimate informality. His fans adored him, and it would be a mean-spirited soul who begrudged him his two hours in the Promenade sun.

· The Proms continue until September 8. Box office: 020-7589 8212


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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