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The Oxford Belles: All-Female A Cappella at its Finest
Published on Sunday, 15 August 2010

3.5 stars

C (venue website)
4-30 Aug (not 16), 2:45pm (3:35pm)
Reviewed by Lee Zhuo Zhao

Thanks to the hit TV show "Glee!", a cappella music has seen a revival in interest recently. This is evidenced this year at the Fringe with no less than five groups hailing from the University of Oxford. (I'm embarrassed to report my alma mater and bitter rivals, Cambridge, have none. Zero. Zilch.)

It is very tempting to describe the Oxford Belles as Out of the Blue without Y chromosomes, but this would be wholly unfair; the Belles are talented in their own right and, besides, all-female groups have much tougher time. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, the male voice can regularly range over three octaves, something very, very few female voices can achieve; and secondly, male singers get a large amount of comic mileage from "camping up" whilst on stage. These two factors make arranging and choreographing songs much harder for the likes of the Belles.

So when they nail a song, as they did with their final song in their set, it's all the more impressive... especially since all their arrangements are original ones by members of the group.  Unfortunately, they did take an awfully long time to warm up – a bit of a problem since, like the other a cappella shows, this is only 50 minutes long.

For much of the first half, many of the women (especially those singing back-up) looked rather awkward, and didn't seem to be enjoying themselves. Maybe it was a case of nerves, this being the Fringe debut for this reincarnation of the Oxford Belles. However, it had a knock-on effect on the rest of performance: their movements on stage were a little clumsy, and some of the harmonies weren't quite pitch perfect.

But once things settled with a few slower, jazzier numbers, I got a hint of the magic the Belles are capable of. They managed to bring more of their personality onto the stage and it was suddenly a much more enjoyable performance.

The Belles seemed most comfortable when tackling rather choral arrangements, and I'd hazard a guess many of them have a background singing in their college choirs. Perhaps, if they'd kicked off the show with that, the nerves would have dissipated quicker. In any case, with a bit more polish, more adventurous choreography and maybe a few better-known songs in their repertoire, they could go very far: they've got the voices, the looks and, most importantly for any a cappella group, a decent human beatbox.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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