With two songs having to be changed at short notice, much about tonight’s show may have been improvised, so it should be treated with some caution. That said, with the three elimination favourites in the first four slots – alongside outright favourite Louisa Johnson – producers seemed to make their intentions at the bottom of the pile pretty clear.
Up first, in the 15 minutes while Strictly was still on the other side, was Mason Noise. He got a sympathetic enough VT, as we saw him feeling down about his singoff appearance and returning home to be cheered up by his dad – although that scene may also have created a sense that Mason will have plenty of emotional support when he exits the show, so no need to feel too bad about not voting for him.
There was plenty of red and black in the ‘Men In Black’ production, and it wasn’t as big a production as we had been promised. There were certain similarities to what Kiera had been given last week: some dance interludes; a sense of style over substance. Rita said: “I don’t think you need to worry about being in the bottom two”, a classic example of reverse psychology intended to suggest an act is safe and therefore there’s no need to vote. Simon, amusingly, praised his “cockiness and arrogance” – twice, just to make sure we got that Mason is cocky. And arrogant.
It wasn’t any better for Max; arguably it was worse. His VT warned us that the song had no big moments, priming viewers to be bored, before he returned to an empty pub where he used to sing to reminisce with the landlord about how he once got drunk and sang the same line over and over again.
Everything about the performance was dull: the backdrop, the dry ice, the slow walk right from the back of the stage. Nick said he wanted Max to be a “bit more emotional” which translates as, “you were dull and robotic”. Rita said she had become a “Max fan” in the dullest voice she could muster. Cheryl got the word “boring” in, advising Max to open up and show his emotions, to which Max replied “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Simon said Max was starting to relax and believe he should be there, which is another moment of reverse psychology. Olly reminded us of that empty pub, and Caroline’s “after the break, Louisa Johnson” sounded very much like it carried a subtext of “viewers, we know the show has been abysmal so far, please don’t turn off yet”.
Mason and Max were memoryholed by Mogg, the Sainsburys Christmas advert cat, and then by Louisa, who had a segment of her own between ad breaks. We’ve been puzzled by how producers are packaging Louisa and again the VT was a mixed affair. At one point, Louisa admitted to struggling with feeling the lyrics, to which vocal coach Annabel replied she should just “stand there and sing”, something we feel is precisely the problem. She had a nice bonding moment at home with her mother in the VT, though it also suggested she’s been a stage school kid since Leona’s year, 2006.
A heavenly-looking Louisa featured in the backdrop, and she looked angelic in white. The song spent a while too long at Ella Henderson pace before Louisa showed off her powerful voice and the faux gospel choir duly appeared. Judges’ praise was immense again, and this time featured tears from Rita and Louisa herself and an epic, sustained close-up on Louisa’s tearful face. It maintained her position at the head of the market and Louisa backers will be encouraged that producers had the confidence to send her out third rather than feeling the need for a pimp slot, but you could also argue that it smelled a bit desperate at times.
Monica’s VT started with a reminder of last week’s “what have they turned you into” and how much Monica hated the dress. She got a nice section with the kids she mentors, though. As with Lauren later, the change in song choice was referenced without further explanation, which felt like the fairest balance for the show to strike.
Staging aficionados will have noticed the eclipse backdrop – a star that’s been blocked out? And some dead trees on stage. But Monica had a few strong moments with a song that she clearly relates to. Simon agreed and said, “it takes guts to do that on live TV” as he and Cheryl awkwardly and obliquely referenced recent news events. Nick called Monica “an artist” and “I can hear that voice on the radio”. Still, the act singing directly after Louisa has finished bottom and second-bottom of the vote in the last two weeks, and she was followed by one of the evening’s more memorable performances.
“Bollie, what are you doing, nobody wants these boring slow songs – they want to be entertained!” said Reggie. Would someone tell that to Louisa? This felt like a definite deramp for the likeable Ghanaians, and it will be interesting to see whether they came anywhere near to topping the vote in week 2 when the stats are announced after the series – it would explain the elements of dampening in this week’s treatment and, if it had leaked, also the price crash on them in the outright market through the week.
The dampening elements? Whereas commenters last week debated whether or not they fitted the classic definition of a novelty act, this felt like firmly pigeonholing them in that category. The Titanic skit reminded us how ropey their vocals are. The cut from them in their normal jobs to them dressed in suits made from money was not a good look. The judges staged a distracting argument about the movie. As Cowell said, “was it as good as last week? No.”
West End was the theme for Anton’s performance, which felt like he was being shoved into the musical theatre box recently vacated by Seann Miley Moore. The VT focused on Anton’s history on the musical theatre stage, which rather undercut his anonymous backing vocalist backstory, and the staging was very… stagey, with theatre lights and artsy monochromatic lighting.
Nick told him there were offputting musical theatre tics in his performance style, and Simon’s “back in the game” didn’t feel convincing. Still, one source of encouragement for Anton backers is that Max seemed to be a clear target this week, and it’s debatable whether Cowell’s ego will allow him to lose all his acts well before the final; for now we’ll assume the intention is to keep a lid on Anton’s popularity, rather than to open the trapdoor.
There was some confusion around 4th Impact’s introduction, as Cheryl announced that Selina would be missing the performance but she turned up on stage anyway. There were arguably slight hints of a deramp in the VT as we saw the girls saying how much they missed being at home in the Philippines, but this was counterbalanced by the effort to introduce them as individuals. Their staging was fun, their performance was highly professional, and they got a glitter cannon at the end, to go with a four-judge standing ovation.
Olly saying “is there a chair?” while standing in front of four chairs is a moment that sums up how the new presenting team has yet to reach Dermot’s heights of professionalism. Once the wobbly-looking Selina was safely sitting down, judges’ comments focused on the girls’ professionalism and they should surely poll well this week.
Lauren got a nice homecoming VT, showing her as recognised and popular on a hometown walkabout – much more so than her namesake Lauren Platt, who got a similar VT last year. The new song turned out to suit her well, and showcased her ability to sell the emotions of a song much more than her category rival Louisa – it wasn’t note perfect, but it was moving.
Simon said “the competition has started”, comparing her to Fleur (then, as an afterthought, Ben); but it was Nick’s comments that raised an eyebrow, naming her “definitely my favourite girl in the competition” as well as saying she has a “Great British” similarity to Adele and Amy Winehouse. If producers are confident of getting Louisa to the win, they aren’t showing it in any urgency to turn down the gas under Lauren. Our forum debated whether Nick’s comment suggested a new alpha girl or not.
Closing the show was Che, who had a sweet VT portraying him as cheerful and fun, and showcasing a touching moment on the phone with his dad, Che senior, whom we later saw looking proud after his son’s performance. The VT ended with Nick namechecking him as a potential finalist.
The styling and staging was reminiscent of James Arthur, with Che’s name up on a movie drive-in sign as an old-school leading man. However, we were disappointed in places by Che’s vocal, which felt underpowered and exposed compared to recent weeks – though he got a four-judge ovation and a full-on pimping regardless. There was a concerted effort to cast Che as an unlikely sex symbol, with Rita admitting she’s starting to fancy him and Cowell saying his love life is going to improve after the show (one wonders how his girlfriend feels about that). “You have soul,” Simon concluded.
Che held steady in second-favouritism in the outright after this performance, with Louisa drifting slightly and Lauren coming in. Of more immediate concern, with another double elimination promised, Max and Mason are vying for favouritism to finish bottom of the vote, at 11/8 and 7/4 respectively, with Monica at 5/1 and the rest nowhere. Can you see outside of the first two for the automatic elimination? Will one of the three escape the bottom three, and if so who might the surprise be? Let us know your impressions below.