Christmas in the City: The Music of Barlow & Smith at The Pheasantry, London.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Bella Barlow, a tall blonde from Devon who composes lovely music, and Alli Smith, a chatterbox brunette from Colorado who writes clever lyrics, met over a piano in Willesden Green and things started to happen.
Smith was Barlow’s piano pupil, a friendship ensued, and the pair found themselves scrawling music during train rides, reading rhyming dictionaries for fun, and singing melodies while walking down the street to the astonished glances of passers-by.
That’s how this delightfully enthusiastic songwriting team began little more than a year ago and already their songs have been endorsed by giants of the game like Janie Dee and Kerry Ellis.
Dee used two of their songs in her Elizabethan cabaret at the Globe in May, her bubbling sense of mischief perfect for the naughty innuendo of ‘My Private Delight’, one of the songs she reprised, complete with chocolate Santa, guesting at the Barlow & Smith Christmas show at The Pheasantry.
Featuring 15 of their compositions alongside more traditional Yuletide fare, and roping in seven gifted singers to help them out, the evening launched their first album in style.
The title song, ‘Christmas in the City’, is particularly strong with its theme of the deepening loneliness of life when you’re among strangers in a big city at a time when others are celebrating.
Rhiannon Drake’s sympathetic treatment, greatly helped by some haunting cello from Kat Hattersley, made the most of a very affecting piece.
Drake was joined by Barlow, Calum Melville and Fed Zanni for the hilarious but not-far-from-the-truth ‘Caroling Quartet’ – about people who slam the door in the faces of carol singers. ‘Crown of Stars’, Smith’s sole singing contribution, duetting with Zanni, was also much enjoyed.
There was plenty more on a fun evening, not least Emma Ralston’s amusing ‘The Pudding Song’ and ‘There is a Light’, a fine interpretation by Gary Wood, while Joanna Lee shone with ‘The Festival of Lights’, which could hardly have been more topical with Hanukkah being celebrated.
I liked all their songs – there wasn’t a dud among them – but whether they are memorable or sharp enough to tempt CD buyers – it’s available on the B&S website – we shall have to wait and see. For the moment, it’s great they have people like the much-loved Dee batting for them.
What ties the album together is that the songs tell stories celebrating the mix of feelings Christmas can inspire, from intense joy to desperate loneliness.
Barlow & Smith certainly have the tools to write a musical – Smith teaches playwriting and has been involved in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, while Barlow was the AMD on Soul Music and has acting credits for Into the Woods and Side By Side By Sondheim. Maybe that is the next step. Whatever the future holds, may luck go with them.