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Where showbiz stars take centre stage

JPI NORTH WEST STAGES Musical Theatre Festival at Sea REVIEW

Anna Cryer takes to the high seas for a cruise holiday where entertainment is king.  Article featured on www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk on 29 January, 2019

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Imagine, if you will, a week of luxury food and drink, all accompanied by a soundtrack of some of the UK’s greatest names in theatre. That’s what Stages Festival – a crazy kind of Glastonbury for theatrical sorts – lined up for fans of musical theatre, for their maiden voyage, with headline performances from Michael Ball, Beverley Knight and Collabro, among others, not to mention being in the sumptuous surroundings of a luxurious cruise ship.

Floating Festivals brought all the magic of the West End to Royal Caribbean’s Navigator Of The Seas, with almost non-stop performances throughout the ship, themed party nights, and special Q&A events with the stars. Now, this is pretty much my idea of heaven, but not quite so for my husband. He doesn’t mind the odd show here and there, but a week of intensive jazz hands could easily have brought him out in a green rash to rival Elphaba. But such was the quality of the whole experience he survived unscathed, and readily admitted enjoying himself.

The four-night trip set sail from Southampton, docked for a day of exploring in Amsterdam before returning to the UK, zigzagging the English Channel along the way. Departure was under slightly drizzly grey skies, much what you’d expect of the south coast in October. Yet, the next morning, we were basking in glorious warm sunshine, wearing our swimming cossies and soaking up the rays on the deck as we sauntered on the waves somewhere between Dover and Calais.

We certainly didn’t expect to be sunbathing in the English Channel in mid-autumn, after a relaxing soak in one of several hot tubs, but it was an added treat as we watched The Wizard Of Oz – one of several musical films on the sun deck’s big screen during the week. My husband was brave enough to try one of Royal Caribbean’s special features, the FlowRider – a surf simulator, nestled at the stern of the ship. Under Where showbiz stars take centre stage clear blue skies, and on a millpondcalm Channel, he could have been riding waves in the Caribbean.

I chose a more relaxing pursuit and drifted into bliss with a full-body massage in the top-notch spa. As cruise debutants, we were both really surprised and impressed with the choice of activities on board; mini golf, rock climbing and basketball to name but a few. But where Stages really excelled was in the entertainment. For a debut voyage, Floating Festivals really pulled out all the stops with every headline performance drawing standing ovations from the devoted audiences.

Ball and Knight were spectacular, as could be expected, and Collabro provided plenty of charm, but many passengers found a surprise new favourite in John Owen Jones, a revered performer in the business – he’s played Phantom and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables – but little known to the general public, who were readily won over by his warm and funny personality. But there were no disappointments. Kerry Ellis was the last minute replacement, and put together a late-night relaxed cabaret-style show as well as her main slot, opening for Lee Mead.

Songwriting legend Don Black gave a fantastic Q&A with a very special guest appearance by Marti Webb, while Christina Bianco and Perry Grant were vying for the title of hardest working acts, popping up at various times and in multiple locations on board for witty singalong spots.

Another highlight for us was Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, whose cast piece together a brand-new show every time they perform, thanks to the potentially madcap suggestions from the audience.

The trip was the first time my husband and I had both left our two and a half-year-old daughter, so we were determined to make the most of it and certainly got value from the all-inclusive drinks package. Cheers to toddler-free hangovers! At around £50 per person per day, it’s not a cheap addition to the cruise cost, but a day’s drink tab could easily top that with premium coffees, soft drinks, cocktails, wine, beers and spirits all covered in the package price.

We also had excellent meals in the main dining room and the Italian and tapas speciality restaurants, all adding to a very special experience. Which all bodes well for later this year when Stages returns to the waves with Alfie Boe, Sheridan Smith and Collabro already confirmed among the stars performing, with many more to be announced.

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