Review: A Handbag of Harmonies at Chester Town Hall

A HANDBAG OF HARMONIES/Chester Town Hall, 19/6/10

REVIEW/by Michael Green

IF YOU think you know what Chester ladies choir A Handbag of Harmonies is all about, think again.

If your experience of this exuberant choral company is bite-sized performances during their many guest appearances throughout the area, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And if you believe their appearance on national TV via the 2008 BBC 1 series Last Choir Standing - which they were voted off at a criminally early stage - was the pinnacle of their achievements, you don’t know what you are talking about.

What A Handbag of Harmonies is capable of was witnessed by the privileged capacity audience which packed the assembly rooms at Chester’s refurbished Town Hall on Saturday evening.

It was a night of pure DeCadence in the nicest possible way! For that was the title of a show which celebrated 10 years since the choir’s humble beginnings in Handbridge, when a handful of ladies decided they wanted to have some fun by singing together.

It was supposed to be a bit of a lark for 10 weeks but they reckoned without the artistic force of nature that is Matt Baker, the musical director who took this embryonic singing group and turned them into a world class performing act.

The culmination of everything the choir has achieved over the past decade was a concert at the Town Hall which resulted in a standing ovation you knew was coming from the moment the 60-strong line-up opened the show with a rendition of Earth Wind & Fire’s Fantasy that gave everyone goosebumps.

We got everything we expected - handbags, feather boas, Britney Spears, Jo McNee’s cheeky but oh so clever choreography - but we got so much more.

For a start, we got soloists and what a sensation they were whether it was Bobbie with Lullaby of Broadway, Michelle with Fame, Erin with Secret Love or Allie with You’re So Vain.

And special mention must be made of the choir’s assistant musical director Ruth Alexander Rubin who fronted a simply stunning version of Another Little Piece of My Heart which brought the first half to a rousing close.

The second half opened with another taste of the unexpected -the delightful Harmonettes. This is an offshoot trio inspired by the performance style of The Andrews Sisters which won everyone over with lively versions of Sway, Red Sails in the Sunset, Valerie and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

Matt Baker - who was an utterly charming and amusing master of ceremonies throughout the evening - was at his most irresistible when he deliberately laboured the point about the choir’s TV competition exit, largely at the hands of judge Suzi Digby.

But this gave him the chance to cunningly set up examples of how much the Handbags have progressed since Last Choir Standing.

These ladies needed no gimmicks to send the spirits soaring with their exhilarating rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water, followed by a performance of Total Eclipse of the Heart that showed the Glee kids exactly how to wring every bit of emotion from this epic ballad.

Both songs were performed acapella which demonstrated the company’s justifiable confidence in its own abilities, recently enhanced with the help of a grant from the BBC Performing Arts Fund.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, though, was that the musical highlight of the evening came from a song that no one in the audience had ever heard before.

A Handbag husband, Clive McWilliam, is a prize-winning poet who produced a piece of work to mark the choir’s 10th anniversary which was subsequently put to music by Baker.

The result was Shining River, a moving, lyrical and musically uplifting song that deserves to become a permanent inclusion in the choir’s repertoire and to be given national exposure should that opportunity ever arise again.

Having succeeded in getting an enthusiastic audience to join in with the finale of Love Is In The Air, it was time for everyone to get to their feet to show their appreciation of a memorable night that will take its place among the highlights of the first ever Chestival.

The Handbags may not have been the Last Choir Standing but they are most definitely a choir still standing and doing so with their heads - and handbags - held high.