Ireland has fallen at the first hurdle of Eurovision 2021, with Lesley Roy’s Maps eliminated in the semi-final. The exit was, in truth, not a surprise. Maps was pleasant but generic.
And the overly elaborate staging that saw the Balbriggan singer romp through a paper forest tried too hard to make an impression and felt disconnected from the spirit of Eurovision. She also appeared to suffer from nerves.
Instead, Norway, Israel, Russia, Azerbaijan, Malta, Lithuania. Cyprus, Sweden, Belgium and Ukraine survive to warble another day, progressing to the final, on Saturday.
Lesley Roy did her best to add to the Eurovision pageantry with an elaborate set conceived by the Swedish designer Fredrik Rydman. It certainly stood out, although the results were arguably more CBeebies than CBGBs
Roy, who is based in New York, began her performance at Rotterdam’s Ahoy Arena slightly late – the head of RTÉ’s Eurovision delegation says she had to wait for a technical hitch with a camera cable to be resolved – forcing the Dutch presenter to ad-lib about how wonderful it was to see live music played in front of a crowd again (3,500 fans, each certified Covid free, were inside the 16,000-capacity venue).
Eurovision has always been as much about spectacle as songwriting. The 65th contest was no different. Lithuania’s The Roop opened the evening with synchronised dancing in banana-hued suits. Later, Russia’s Manizha whooshed around from inside a giant motorised dress. You worried briefly that the brakes might fail, sending her whizzing through the hallway and out into the traffic.
Roy, who is 34, did her best to add to the pageantry with an elaborate “paper world” set conceived by the Swedish designer (and Eurovision veteran) Fredrik Rydman. It certainly stood out, although the results were arguably more CBeebies than CBGBs.
The crowd applauded – yet did not appear quite bowled over. And Twitter was divided, with some on social media feeling Ireland was trying too hard. Ireland’s big moment was also silly rather than camp – and one sensed this distinction mattered a great deal to the Eurovision audience.
If anything the frippery did a disservice to Roy, who was accompanied to Rotterdam by her wife, Lauren. The performance came on in literal leaps and bounds, as the extraneous cleverness was finally dispensed with and the singer, in a dark-green jumpsuit, dashed to the edge of the stage, belting out the chorus. Roy was keen, but perhaps a calmer presentation would have given Maps an opportunity to shine.
The evening's elaborate staging and songs pinged so fast between sublime and ridiculous that it soon become difficult to distinguish one from the other
Just 10 of the 16 competitors made it through to Saturday following a vote split 50/50 between national juries and members of the public. Roy faced a tough field, including favourites Malta and Cyprus.
With the pandemic ongoing, Eurovision represents a huge logistical undertaking. There have been setbacks, with a member of Iceland’s delegation testing positive for coronavirus on Sunday. After cancelling in 2020, however, the contest was this year determined to sweep viewers off their feet and away to a world of pure fantasy.
This was achieved in the first semi-final with elaborate staging and songs that pinged so fast between sublime and ridiculous that it soon become difficult to distinguish one from the other. The world is an increasingly fraught and divided place – but the first semi-final from Rotterdam was a reminder that we’ll always have Eurovision.
The competition continues at the Ahoy Arena on Thursday at 8pm, when 18 countries compete in the second semi-final. The 10 top-ranked countries from each semi-final go through to Saturday's final, also starting at 8pm. They are joined by the big five of Spain, the UK, France, Germany and Italy – who qualify automatically because their national broadcasters underwrite the costs of staging the contest – and by the Netherlands, which, as host nation, also gets a bye into the final. The semi-final is on RTÉ2 and BBC Four, the final on RTÉ One and BBC One.
This article was amended on May 19th, 2021, to incorporate RTÉ's clarification of why Lesley Roy began her performance behind schedule