When the West End comes to cruise ships as Cats previews on Oasis of the Seas

About this time five years ago I was hobnobbing with Gloria Estefan as she and six other nautical godmothers launched the Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship. Entertaining the 5800 guests was the Broadway show Hairspray. Now Tracy Turnblad and Link Larkin have made way for Rumpleteazer and Mr. Mistoffolees as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats makes it's debut at sea. I'm back to see what this means for cruise ships and the West End. Moving away from the review shows typical of cruise ships, Hairspray was among the first at sea to tell a story from beginning to end with lead actors and a full supporting cast. It was the closest anyone had got to recreating the West End experience on a ship. It was a success and Norwegian Cruise Lines took on Rock of Ages and Legally Blonde. Royal Caribbean followed that with Saturday Night Fever, Chicago, Mamma Mia and soon We Will Rock You.



Casting for cruise ships

There were early concerns about quality control, especially the challenge of casting. Cruise ship entertainment is still considered as unimaginative, low-grade cheese by some. Would enough performers of the right calibre be prepared to leave home for nine months to work on a ship? It appears so. Lured by world-class creative teams, state of the art theatres and a chance to travel the world, great performers were soon lining up to audition. As more performers discover the opportunities that ships can offer, the general talent pool casting directors have to work with is growing. Christi Coachman-Orengo, Royal Caribbean's Director of Entertainment told me how their decision to use Broadway casting directors has helped create more opportunities for everyone, “There was an occasion when we cast a role but later realised the singer did not have the vocal range to handle our second production show. In that case, the casting director snapped them up for Broadway.”

Attention span of cruise ship passengers

Most shows at sea have last less than an hour. Hairspray and Saturday Night Fever pushed it to 90 minutes. Cats is different. It's the first time a full-length, unedited book show in its original form has been staged at sea. With Really Useful's creative team collaborating with Royal Caribbean, no one was worried about the quality of the show. The concerns were regarding the audience. Would cruise ship holiday makers want to sit through the full 2 hour 20 minute production? And what about intermission? Seats in cruise ship theatres are not numbered or preallocated so people sit where they like. If they leave the theatre during the intermission would they loose their seat?

I was there for the first preview performance. Every one of the 1380 seats for each show was taken. The air fizzed with excitement. Everyone knew they were witnessing something special. Fears about guests coming and going during the show were largely unfounded. Everyone came back after intermission and no one had to fight for their seat.

What it means for the West End

As more book shows inevitably make their way to cruise ships the West End should be in buoyant mood. It means another income stream for writers and more work for directors, choreographers and technicians. For performers cruise ships are a real alternative to the West End or touring. A third place to do what they love.

In bringing a true West End experience to sea Royal Caribbean were hoping their guests would rise to the occasion. They wanted the same sense of anticipation you'd find in a West End theatre. It was a risk but it seems to have paid off. It's hasn't all been plain sailing but early audience reactions are strong. As Gus the Theatre Cat says, “There's nothing to equal from what I here tell, that moment of mystery when I make history.”

The joys of middle age

I'm embracing middle age: my hair's falling out, I can spell haemorrhoid and I'm beginning to enjoy DIY. My dad was always very handy. He'd spend hours pottering about in his shed producing cupboards, fruit bowls and on one occasion a drop-leaf kitchen table.

In an obvious attempt to impress him I too wanted to make something, but what? I was nine; it had to be small, simple and practical. I decided on a coffin for my hamster. My dad was speechless. So was my hamster - it hadn't died yet. I put my crayons in it instead.

Thirty-four years on and as the owner of a 200 year old flat I'm certainly not short of jobs to do.

I've been sawing, hammering and painting anything I can get my hands on. A trip to Wickes is strangely exciting. Last week a bought a file. There's something very satisfying about doing jobs around the house: fixing a cupboard door that never closed properly, building a new shelf to make life that little bit easier. As a singer I don't have much to show for my work - I do a concert and it's over - but my shelf will be there forever (as long as I used the right rawl-plugs).

I'm getting better all the time. I'm not sure I'll ever manage a drop-leaf kitchen table but if anyone's got a hamster on it's last legs...

What to expect from your first Glastonbury experience

My powers of irony are failing. A few days ago, having about the best time of my life at my first Glastonbury Festival, I told my Facebook pals, "Glastonbury is rubbish". Everyone thought I was serious. No - I was joking. It was, in fact, one of the most exhilarating and enlightening experiences of my life. Exhilarating to see the headliners like Robert Plant, Paulo Nutini, Kaiser Chiefs and the bedazzled Dolly Parton but just as rewarding were the more intimate gigs: Tankus the Henge, the Beautiful South's Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbot, Peatbog Fairies, Vintage Trouble, Rusty Shackle and CC Smugglers.

Most of the acts I saw wouldn't have been given the time of day by Simon Cowell and his money making bandits. This was about real artists making real music.

It's a massive festival and it's full of surprises. Some of the best times were spent wandering aimlessly from stage to stage stumbling across stunning acts I'd never heard of but will never forget.

Enlightening because almost everyone one of the 120,000 ticket holders were there to enjoy music, meet people and have fun. It's a sort of paradise – a hedonistic Brigadoon where everyone smiles and connections are instant.

I spent the wee hours of the last night partying in a filthy disco packed with people of all ages who hadn't bathed for five days. No pretentious dickheads, designer labels or moody bouncers here (who ever decided that was fun?). Everyone wore crazy outfits and limboed across the dance floor in wellies caked with mud. The music was fun, the dancing was silly and everyone (regardless of what they do in the real world) had the time of their lives.

And finally, to the hippy epicentre of Glastonbury – the Stone Circle. Littered with campfires and candles there was no better place to contemplate the last five days and watch the sunrise over the massive festival site.

Thank you Glastonbury. You dragged me through the mud and replenished my spirit. My body may be broken but my mind has never been better.

For more pictures visit me on Facebook.

If it's true love you're after...

I've always hated working on Valentine's night. Too many years singing cozy ballads to couples desperately trying to remember what they ever saw in each other. “Where are you taking me Valentine's night?” It's a problem. Most couples are so busy with kids, work and everything in between that they need Hallmark to remind them to spent some quality time together. But a whole evening of uninterrupted conversation with the love of your life is an alarming prospect. Seeing a show or a movie is a welcome distraction but not without risk.

Barb Jungr
Barb Jungr

Listening to someone like me singing “love is here to stay” only reminds you and your beau of what you're missing. Do you really want to hear the hits of Nat 'King' Cole when you can barely stand the sight of each other?

I have a better idea. An evening with Barb Jungr singing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. If it's passion your after, this is the real thing. A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, Everybody Knows, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Chimes of Freedom – it doesn't get much better. Barb Jungr is a great lover. She listens, caresses every line and holds nothing back.

No sugared sentiments here but you will see true love in action.

Tonight at the South Bank.

Rediscovering my love of music

I've just bought a record player and with it rediscovered my love of music. I have over 30,000 tunes on my laptop, 8000 on my iPod and access to over 17 million on Spotify. I'm overwhelmed.

Until recently I didn't own a single vinyl record so I've started building my collection from scratch. I'm choosing carefully.

I've just idled away three hours in the old record shops of Buenos Aires listening to dozens of discs, making new discoveries and finding old friends. Oscar Peterson, Bob Dylan, Astrud Gilberto, MJQ, CCR, Neil Young, Terry Gibbs, Stan Getz. I can't wait to get home.

And that's the thing about records - you have to be home to play them. Fragile, bulky, non portable - they're a pain in the arse. They demand time, care and attention and all this investment makes you listen to the music more closely. Until recently I hardly ever just sat and listened to a whole album start to finish; now I do it all the time.

It's like cooking. You can easily go to the supermarket and buy a decent ready made meal for a tenner but buy the ingredients yourself and take time preparing the same meal from scratch and it will taste much better. Much of the pleasure is in the journey not the destination. I could take a car from Biarritz to Santiago but walking the 500 mile Camino de Santiago makes the destination all the more profound.

On iTunes I can hear any song I want within seconds of clicking “search”, but browsing through a fusty record shop, discovering a special disc, cleaning it and carefully lowering the needle encourages me to sit back (or dance around the room) and really appreciate the music.

A SAGA cruise is only 8 years away

"Can I see some ID with your date of birth please?" The last time I had to prove my age was 26 years ago outside the Pier nightclub in Cleethorpes. I was an optimistic 16 year old with a beard I'd been cultivating for 2 weeks and £10 burning a hole in my pocket.

"How old are you?"


"What's your date of birth?"

"The fifteenth of December, 19... err... 19..."

Maths was never my strong suit and subtracting 18 from 87 with a stroppy bouncer breathing down my neck was too much. I got the next bus home.

So being asked to prove my age 26 years later was both a surprise and a compliment. I was visiting an aeronautical museum in Canada and the nice old lady taking my money clearly mistook me for a student.

"I'm sorry I don't have any ID"

"It's okay," she said, "I've given you the seniors discount anyway."

I had two choices, (a) swallow the insult and take the discount or, (b) proclaim my (relative) youth and pay full price.

Frugality beat vanity and I took the discount. I'll put the money I saved towards a face lift.

This happens to me a lot.

I'm singing on a Saga cruise this week. I like Saga. It's easy to settle in to the routine of afternoon naps, high seat chairs and milky bedtime drinks. I was sitting chatting to an elderly lady this morning, let's call her Nana 1, when another lady, Nana 2, joined us.

"Is this your mum?" asked Nana 2.

"No, no," said Nana 1, "he's my boyfriend." We all laughed, except it soon became apparent that Nana 2 thought she was serious. Now Nana 1 quickly realised this and decided to go with it.

"Oh yes," she said putting her hand on my knee, "we're very happy."

I didn't say anything.

The last time I was on a cruise with my seventy year old mother everyone thought she was my wife. She loved it. Me, not so much.

People keep telling me I should learn to grow old gracefully, but I'd rather do it disgracefully. That way, at least I'll be having a nice time the next time someone insults me.

Ice hockey and Liza Minnelli

Only twice have I had to queue for more than 10 minutes the men's toilet while the women's has been empty - an ice hockey game in Canada and a Liza Minnelli drag show in London. Both were full of noisy men but only one was sponsored by Budweiser. Ice hockey is Canada's national sport and I couldn't visit Toronto without catching a game. I was in luck, the local Maple Leafs were playing the New York Ducks. It was a fast, aggressive emotional ride for the 20,000 fans. Since fighting amongst the players is actively encouraged it does attract an especially masculine audience. For every woman I saw I counted at least 50 men. There was enough testosterone I the place to put hairs on Justin Bieber's chest.

Beavis and Butthead's closest living relatives were sitting right behind us with a running commentary including: "The Ducks are f***ing losers man... even though they're winning," on seeing a competition winner receive his free popcorn and T-shirt, "Where the f***'s our free popcorn and shit man? This is f***ing bullshit" and my personal favourite when a player missed a shot, “That guy's totally got herpes”. What? They were more entertaining than the match.

The real winners were the advertisers or rather the people receiving the advertising revenue. I counted 157 billboards in the stadium itself plus the countless screens and banners around the bars and merchandise stands. You can buy kits, cups, T-shirts, pens, caps, bottle openers and giant foam hands with fingers to do the pointing for you.

The local team won and everyone went home happy. Would I go back? Probably not unless Liza Minnelli was the half time entertainment. Now that would be interesting.

Pasty Wars

Pasty shops are Cornwall's answer to Starbucks. There's one on every corner, they cost about £3 and they come in endless varieties. As well as the traditional meat and potato I've tried chilli beef, pork with apple and yes, chocolate. In St. Ives I came across one shop claiming to sell “The Best Pasty In The World”. Everything in Cornwall seems to have won at least one award so I decided to challenge the typically cheerful girl behind the counter as to the provenance of this bold claim. “It was,” she trotted out, “voted the best out of 300 pasties in a competition held at the Eden Project this year.” Good enough for me.

I couldn't help imagine the controversy such an award would have kindled in the other pasty makers. Think of it. The jealousy, the infighting and sabotage that surely must rage under the crust of this seemingly wholesome, benign country event. At least I hope it does. Scratch the surface and who knows what you'll find.

Everyone's a winner

So which pasty would the girl recommend? The Thai chicken. “And what awards has that won?” I asked. “None,” she said, “it didn't actually get a place this year's competition.” Since I didn't fancy eating what was officially at least the 301st. worst pasty in the world I decided to pass.

As I left the shop she girl leaned towards me over the counter, “Pasties aren't even Cornish,” she whispered, “we nicked them from Devon.” Clearly a pasty subversive but it seems she wasn't fibbing. According to that most reliable of sources, Wikipedia:

In 2006, a researcher in Devon discovered a recipe for a pasty tucked inside an audit book and dated 1510, calculating the cost of the ingredients. This replaced the previous oldest recipe, dated 1746, held by the Cornwall Records Office in Truro, Cornwall... the discovery sparked a controversy between the neighbouring counties of Devon and Cornwall.

I'll bet it did. Mark my words – there's a Tarrantino movie staring Samuel L Jackson and Denzel Washington just waiting to me made.