Review: Semi-Toned @ Exeter Northcott

The day after the release of their third EP “Strike Three”, Semi-Toned take to the stage of the sold-out Northcott Theatre, where major national productions have run: not a bad venue for the 12-man student led a cappella group. The show is powerful, dramatic and showcases a highly impressive range of musical styles, vocals, and choreography.

The evening is a remarkable success. For hours, Exeter’s highly talented performers grace the theatre with dynamic, passionate music, to huge audience enjoyment. Exeter’s all-female a cappella group Sweet Nothings open the show and stun the audience members with their talent. As skilled as the headliners, the girls sing beautifully; a personal highlight would have to be the compilation of “Gold Digger” and “You Know I’m No Good”, which showcases the girls’ penchant for hip-hop and dance music, as well as their stunning solo voices. They wrap up with a Madonna mash-up which is organised and performed stunningly. The girls showcase exceptional talent and a sassy, girl-power aesthetic, setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the show.

The Semi-Toned boys take to the stage dramatically and energetically with “Let’s Get It Started” warming up both the audience and performers. The opener is punchy, immersing the audience from the outset in the perfect harmonies, beats, powerful solos and theatrical choreography we’ve come to expect from the group. A series of equally dynamic numbers follow, revealing incredible energy from the group, without compromising on the quality of the singing for which they are adored nationwide. Slower songs put impressive vocals at the forefront of performances: “Candle in the Wind” allows Alfie Davies’ to move the audience, and Ludo Graham’s “Go West” is stunning.

The setlist includes some light-hearted numbers including a medley of Village People hits such as “In the Navy”, playing with traditional masculinity for comic value as Semi-Toned have become known for doing, as well as a hilarious rendition of “Ghost Town” fronted by Henry Edwards. A touching moment occurs when the final-year members of the group, Henry, Tommy, Sam and Charlie, gather onstage to sing “Hello My Baby” wearing straw hats. An incredible beatbox solo by Max Weeden provides an interlude from the singing and is theatrical, comic and extremely impressive, showcasing some of the unique individual talent that composes the group. Getting the audience engaged, the group perform the flirty Timberlake number “Senorita”, with all the energy of the original, and get the audience singing the coquettish bridge of stereotyped male and female voices: “It feels like something’s heating up, can I leave you with you?”, a source of great fun for spectators, who take up the responsibility happily.

“I Wish” is a personal favourite, musical director Tommy Hamer’s fantastic vocals paying tribute to Stevie Wonder beautifully. Also found on the new EP, Strike Three, the rhythmic, soulful feel of the original are recreated beautifully on stage at the Northcott as well as on the recorded version. “Careless Whisper” meanwhile is a jazzed up, fast-paced version of the George Michael classic with an irresistible beat, and Greg Munday’s solo captures the mood perfectly. The arrangement is stunning: significant liberties are taken with the original song and the boys absolutely make it their own. “Space Oddity” was beautiful and touching, a stunning tribute to Bowie, sang passionately by Charlie Rockall and Ryan Land, while “Peg” put Jacob Westbrook’s jazzy vocals at centre stage. These four classic songs, some of the show’s highlights and the boys’ best work, can be found on the new EP, and are well worth a listen.

Even as the show begins to draw to an end, the group resists exhaustion, as Jacob Storey’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” infuses new energy into the show. And the show’s finale is also its highlight: a rendition of Pharrell Williams’ “Crave”, fronted by Chad Saint Louis, whose voice is stunning and extremely emotive. An extraordinarily powerful singer, the urgency and energy of the original song are transmitted to perfection. Beatboxing works tremendously well in the background, while the rap section is impressive. What is a stunning and highly professional production on the recorded version found on Strike Three, is a moving nail-biter live.

After a prolonged standing ovation, the boys return to the stage for an encore, with “Bat Out of Hell”, another song from the new EP, led by Sam Harper whose powerful voice and rockstar approach suit the song to perfection. Perhaps the most actively demanding choreography, saved until the very end, the group invest every last dreg of energy into the song, concluding a punchy and exciting show.

Throughout the night, production is faultless from sound and lighting designers, Will Surridge and Lewis Plumb. The evening showcased exceptional musical talent combined with incredible stage presence, nothing less than I’d grown to expect from the award-winning singers and Exeter University’s pride and joy.

Semi-Toned’s new EP “Strike Three” is available now on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music and all other major streaming services – check it out now!

– by Katie-Rose Rivers 

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