In these times, when one thinks of the word 'Gala', or anything pertaining to variety in the context of the performing arts, shudders are liable to claim one's spine. This is due to the omnipresence of shows such as Britain's Got Talent, which has not only toxified the Royal Variety Performance with its own trademarkedly irritating brand of saccharine commercialised twee, but whose content is considered exceptionally eclectic and exceptionally tawdry.
A fear of any conceptual links consequentially seeded in the minds of his audience may be why Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society President Atri Banerjee seemed, in the first of many charming and amusing (if rather self-consciously so) bursts of lively patter which acted as an effective gel for his Society's Gala Night, almost to apologise for the premise of the whole occasion. The 'World of Pure Imagination' theme was said to be "exactly the sort of all-permissive thing you'd expect from a night like this;" however, he needn't have worried.
The problem with Britain's Got Talent, aside from its playing host to a trio of sanctimonious waxworks, is that there is usually no thematic cohesion between the successive acts, the supposed 'talent' of whom is actually quite variable. CUMTS does not suffer from this. Every single number, solo and routine sat squarely on the days of diligent rehearsal that informed the whole affair, whilst the individual performers and songs were strung together by the solid core of enthusiasm and talent that clearly perfuses the group. It's why Banerjee was able to make his apology to an audience who had just been drenched in the extraordinary, crying vocals of the Lion King. It's why, following his retreat, the stage could, seemingly without effort, be flooded with crimson light and female soloists who, again seemingly without effort, warbled out 'When I Grow Up' from Matilda.
There were many peaks in the night's quality, though the clear winner was the dashingly funny and creepily effective performance of Legally Blonde's 'Positive'. The perfectly honed ditziness of the accents and mannerisms of those involved even at the height of a particularly strenuous and vivacious routine allowed the juxtaposition of valley girl and Harvard stereotypes to have maximum comedic effect. CUMTS' costume department's being rather resourceful when it comes to fake blonde wigs didn't exactly hurt, either.
Possibly the only criticism I shall levy is that the contrast between individual numbers seemed to dull slightly as the tail end of the Gala was reached. The later sections of the show felt far more homogeneous, arguably somewhat damaging the night's theme. This isn't to say that those acts weren't well conducted, though; the constancy of the applause was evidence enough that the entertainment factor never sagged.
Overall, this was a very well-run block of late-night entertainment, but at the same time, it was far more. CUMTS clearly know what variety is, what it should look like. If their audience were being perceptive enough, and I dearly hope they were, they will have gone away with something far more precious than a night's enrichment: the knowledge that the v-word needn't mean the prostration of every flavour of mediocrity imaginable before ITV's cynically viewer-hungry lenses. Here, a group of talented and enthusiastic students made something genuinely impressive. And it worked. It worked very well indeed.