Neighbours: The Celebration Tour review as stars send thank you to fans
Poor Neighbours fans have been through the wringer in the last year – but are approaching the 2023 reboot of the Aussie classic with joyous enthusiasm.
For the thousands attending Neighbours: The Celebration Tour up and down the country at present, this is a time of victory.
Last year it was announced that the iconic drama – the longest-running in Australian television history and for over three decades a staple of telly here, too – was to be axed after Channel 5 opted not to renew its contract to air the show in the UK.
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The outpouring of emotion from the show’s stars past and present coupled with the grief of its passionate fanbase led to the creation of Neighbours: The Farewell Tour as a final swansong for those from Ramsay Street and those who adored them.
In true Neighbours fashion, however, there was a dramatic twist. Barely 100 days after fans said their goodbyes, Amazon Freevee announced it had picked up much of the show’s iconic library – as well as ‘a new season,' for which filming should begin in a matter of months.
A Farewell Tour it could no longer be, then, with bosses shrewdly making the call to pivot the get-togethers as a Celebration Tour instead.
A cynic might, at first thought, find that to be opportunist at best, but the stage show really doesn’t have that feel about it, and at no point at Birmingham's stunning Symphony Hall did you get the feeling this was a cashing-in exercise.
Rather than lamenting having spent a sizable sum on saying goodbye to a show they’ll now be greeting again in a few months, fans were buzzing at the prospect of mixing the nostalgia of old with the excitement of a whole new era to come.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of fans queued for Meet and Greets with the touring stars. Karl Kennedy (Alan Fletcher), Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburne), Chloe Brennan (April Rose Pengilly), Jane Harris (Annie Jones) and Jarrod ‘Toadie’ Rebecchi (Ryan Moloney) were all on hand, with only the unwell Paul Robinson (Stefan Dennis) missing out before re-joining the affair in time for the evening.
Though the chats with fans were brief and marshalled with military precision and timing by the show’s production team, the warmth that exists between the cast and their fans was undoubtedly evident and this carried through to the evening’s performance.
Hosted by Ramsay Street super-fan and TV presenter Leah Boleto, The Celebration Tour oozes everything Neighbours – right from the build-up music that greeted fans taking their seats, countless classics from the vast Erinsborough alumni who’ve gone on to make it big in the real-world music industry.
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Boleto is the perfect foil, with a sound rapport with the cast but enough professionalism to nudge them gently along to keep the night running smoothly at points where the stars overindulge. She is as at ease with them as the actors are around their audience, and it is hard to shake the feeling of just how genuine that connection is.
After individual introductions and a brief interview with each star, the cast look back as a collective at some iconic Neighbours moments – deaths, disasters, absurdities and outtakes all sandwiched in as a packed audience was taken on an emotional rollercoaster ride down memory lane.
It was evident that care has been taken to give each audience its own slice of the pie – you never feel as though you are watching a rehearsed, re-hash of last night’s conversations nor the chat that will be trotted out on the next date.
Though divided up, the show has no real structure or rigidity, which allows everyone to relax. Still, questions and segments are crafted carefully enough to allow the cast time to reminisce – though ‘Dad Jokes’ Moloney could scarcely hide his sheer thrill and amusement at just being involved in it all.
The biggest Neighbours cliché of all is that it is ‘The Perfect Blend’, yet so it proved again here. Neighbours is, frankly, as absurd as it is poignant and this version of it follows suit.
The event was at its most serious in discussing the rawness at its cancellation, and it is re-enforced that all of those on staged lost jobs they'd had for years. Hearts were poured into giving it what was believed to be a final send-off.
The also cast trade jokes on training a snake (you probably had to be there), and Woodburne cackles at the memory of Susan remarrying after separating from Karl, recalling of her wedding day with her second husband… “I married him and he died that night, it was nothing I did!”
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While the four mainstays in Woodburne, Dennis, Fletcher and Moloney dominate the conversation and the adulation of the audience, Pengilly cuts an assured if slightly bashful figure by comparison.
She appears comfortable that she might lack the history and legacy of those sharing the stage with her purely due to her shorter tenure, but confident in appreciating her own sizable contribution to Neighbours, which goes beyond her cult social media following.
For much of its history, Neighbours failed to represent minorities or diversity as much as it should, though has made clear strides in more recent years. Pengilly speaks eloquently about how well her storylines and performances had been received among the LGBTQ+ community – from the stories she's personally been told – serving as a reminder of the responsibility shows of Neighbours’ stature carry.
Watching the ensemble as they filled the evening with anecdotes, tidbits of filming secrets and their own favourite moments, you feel struck by the ease with which the performance moved, that informality and family-feel that has long been a staple of the Neighbours way.
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Much like the series ‘finale’ last year, this stage show needed a grand finale. The cast hit the spot superbly by taking turns to movingly deliver lines from the emotional Susan Kennedy eulogy to the show that Woodburne so incredibly delivered.
In true Neighbours style, they then proceed to ham it up by having the audience sing along to the show’s iconic theme tune. Why not?
So, Neighbours will, after all, return later this year. It has yet to be confirmed just how permanent a comeback this is for the Australian icon, but for many viewers in the UK at least, that barely seems to matter.
It has never been clearer that the show’s loyal fans are the one who can take the credit for its revival – and Neighbours: The Celebration Tour was very much Ramsay Street’s way of saying thank you to them.
Neighbours: The Celebration Tour, presented by Maple Tree Entertainment in collaboration with Fremantle, continues at venues across the country before heading to Australia.
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