Eurovision Song Contest 2023: What fans should expect from grand final after dazzling dress rehearsal
Licked by flames, the imposing Eurovision stage bursts into life with pyrotechnics to mark the beginning of the 67th song contest - this year being hosted by the UK on behalf of Ukraine.
A giant set of multi-coloured hands are lifted onto the stage as a remix of last year's winning anthem - Stefania by Kalush Orchestra - blasts out, and the band steps out onto two enormous palms accompanied by an army of drummers.
It's a press-only viewing (so really more about planning the show's logistics than entertaining the crowd) but mutters overheard in the audience include "the best opening ceremony ever" and "it bought a tear to my eye".
This is the first of three dress rehearsals for Saturday's grand final - all with full costume, make-up and hair - and follows two semi-finals to whittle the competing 37 countries down to 26.
It's a gruelling schedule as the floor manager cheerily announces: "Enjoy the show, we're exhausted, but you'll love it."
The show has three directors jumping between acts, and a complex series of sets to move on and off the shiny, expansive stage.
It has been described by its designer as "a wide hug, enfolding Liverpool Arena from above and below as it opens its arms to Ukraine".
The green room area - where artists gather when not performing on stage - sits in front of the audience.
A Ukrainian lighting designer who would normally be working on Dancing With The Stars or The Voice in his home country has come over specially to work on the show.
A quartet of presenters - Graham Norton, Hannah Waddingham, Ukrainian TV star Julia Sanina, and Alesha Dixon - introduce the show, and if the 26 acts are tired from their numerous test runs, you wouldn't know it.
First off there's a flag parade, with all the competing countries walking the full run of the catwalk-style stage in turn, followed by a string of Eurovision fan favourites including cult legend Verka Serduchka.
The main event
Austria open the show with Who The Hell Is Edgar? - a catchy ode (of sorts) to literary great Edgar Allen Poe. It's a song everyone is talking about.
Wearing black and white jumpsuits, singers Teya and Salena also give a shout-out to Shakespeare in their performance, as well as a loaded dig at how little artists get paid by streaming sites.
Portugal's Mimicat follows, in a blur of red feathers, and a strong flamenco flavour to her song Ai Coracao.
Meanwhile, Switzerland's war-inspired Watergun is black and minimal, relying on Remo Forrer's impressive and heartfelt lyrics advocating peace as he sings out: "I don't wanna be a soldier".
We're treated to a setting sun on the big screen for Poland's catchy Solo, so while the weather here in Liverpool may be a little damp, the sun is shining in the arena. The act gets full pyrotechnics too, bookending singer Blanka's energetic dance interval.
A quick sweep of the stage later, and a large white sculpture - resembling a half eggshell or H R Giger-inspired skull - contains Serbia's singer Luke Black, who belts out techno-backed Samo Mi Se Spava (which translates as I Just Want To Sleep).
France's La Zarra (the second favourite to win) is quite literally wheeled onto the stage atop a cylindrical platform, which then raises toward the sky, leaving her towering at least 10 ftabove the stage.
As the first chorus plays out, she slowly lowers to the ground, at which point her capacious skirts fall to the floor, before the platform is again raised to the heavens and fireworks rain to the ground around her. Clearly channelling Lady Gaga in her look, she says she first learned how to use her voice by singing along to Edith Piaf.
A barefoot and bare-chested Andrew Lambrou then makes his way solo onto the stage but while he may be alone throughout his entire song, he fills the stage with his impressive vocals.
His ballad, Break A Broken Heart, is Cyprus's entry in the show, and gives him the chance to showcase his impressive high notes.
Spain's Blanca Paloma enters the stage through a maroon fringed structure, with the song's chanting anthem also serving as its title, Eaea.
Paloma has said the song represents a "chant to her late grandmother", who had inspired much of her music, and it's fusion with a strong synth line gives it a Eurovision edge.
Favourite to win
Sweden's act sees another big structure wheeled onto the stage - a rust-brown enclosure, trapping singer Loreen inside, and from which she slowly breaks free as she sings Tattoo. It's the bookies' favourite to win and would make Loreen the first two-time female winner of the competition.
Albania's Albina & Familja Kelmendi sing Duje (which translates as Love It), with all six band members clad in black cloaks. There are fireworks too. Plus it's a family affair, with pop star Albina Kelmendi joined by her parents and siblings to perform the song about love and family togetherness.
For Italy's Due Vite sung by Marco Mengoni, members of the audience are asked to light the torches on their mobile phones and wave them in the air, which the majority dutifully do. A ballad, this one is remarkably similar in staging to Cyprus's entry (minus the bare chest and bare feet).
Beautiful in sky-blue, Estonia's Alika plays a grand piano as she sings Bridges, before breaking out onto the wider stage to finish her song, solo throughout.
One of the buzziest acts of the year, Finland's Kaarija wears his trademark neon green sleeves-only puffer jacket and bowl haircut and performs his thumping techno track against a backdrop of wooden crates, which appear to have a rave going on inside.
Using his shadow to impressive effect, his pink neon backing dancers then dance a sort of rave maypole dance behind him, before kneeling to form a centipede-like creature for him to ride.
Titled Cha Cha Cha, this is an act truly at home in Eurovision, and the audience loves it.
By the half-way point we have seen most of the classic Eurovision act staples - including large structures wheeled on and off the stage, skirts falling to the floor and more backing dancers than you can shake a stick at.
But onto the next act. It's pastel pink and sparkles for Czechia's (Czech Republic's) Vesna, who contrast their floaty feminine costumes with hard-hitting lyrics including: "You can take your hands back, no one wants more boys dead, we're not your dolls," in their entry My Sister's Crown.
Long-haired immigration lawyer and Voyager frontman Danny Estrin rocks out on the bonnet of a full-size car on the stage for Australia's Duran Duran-inspired rock track Promise.
Belgian act Gustaph present their 90s-inspired hit, Because Of You, while wearing a bizarre outfit of candy floss pink trousers and an oversized cream cowboy hat - and hitting impressive high notes.
Armenian singer Brunette is almost a pagan presence with her waist-length hair and wafty white dress, singing Future Lover - another song about a boyfriend like the UK's entry, but this time it's an imaginary one.
Pop metal and ballads
Moldova's Pasha Parfeni performed Soarele si Luna (which means The Sun And The Moon) while performing what looks like a martial art-inspired dance, with the entire song built around metaphors, folk symbols and natural elements. The song is about a wedding and includes him talking to a forest. Oh, and there are drums too.
Electronic duo Tvorchi, made up of producer Andrii Hutsuliak and vocalist Jeffery Kenny, perform Heart Of Steel for last year's winners, Ukraine. With gold and black colours, it's just the two of them on stage, with classical strings blasting out at points of their electro-pop track.
Norway's act Alessandra wears a bodice and crown in her song Queen of Kings about the power of women - which seems to be a bit of a theme in the show mirrored by acts including Czechia and Norway.
Some pop metal from Germany's Lord Of The Lost, vocally attacking the audience with their song Blood & Glitter, performed by tattooed frontman Chris Harms in neon pink pants and leopard print tights, and platform patent shoes.
Then quite a mood change to Lithuania's Monika Linkyte, who sings power ballad Stay in a bright tailored orange mini dress and tidy blonde bob, popping against her backing dancers dressed all in black.
'Do you want to see me dance?'
A black cube with interior lighting enters the stage for Israel's Noa Kirel, who sings catchy pop song Unicorn. The majority of the first verse is sung with the stage in near darkness, before she steps out of the square structure to march at the front of the stage with her monochrome backing dancers. There's even a little rap and acrobatic solo dance break out from Kirel, who asks the audience, "Do you want to see me dance?" It's quite something to behold and definitely the most energetic of the evening's dance offerings.
Five pastel-clad lads with guitars and a drum set take to the stage for Slovenia's act Joker Out, singing Carpe Diem. A bassy number reminiscent of Britpop with a bit of rock thrown in, guitar solos are the order of the day, and some audience participation in the form of clapping along as they rock out.
Quite the whacky act from Croatia - Let 3, singing Mama SC! - a strangely addictive earworm sung by five middle-aged men, who end their act by posing in front of a prop nuclear weapon sporting large fizzing fireworks.
Oh, and four of them strip off mid-song to grey-white vests and pants. The band has apparently been in trouble in the past in their homeland for performing while nude, so all in all, we have a lot to be thankful for. All standard Eurovision fare. Again, this one is well received by the audience.
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And last but not least - the UK's Mae Muller has the final spot in the competition - a decent position and certainly better than risking fading into the crowd in the middle of the show.
On a giant raised stage, she sings with her four backing dancers, and lots of bright video graphics behind - mainly large images of Muller's face with a little pop art treatment. Coming down the stage midway, the central bridge of the song offers Muller the chance to speak directly to the audience in a spoken word section, and by the time the pyrotechnics begin I challenge you not to be tapping your feet.
Muller ends her song, blowing kisses to the crowd.
A Queen star, Abba bandmember and Sonia
Competitive performances complete, Sam Ryder enters the stage with the biggest setup of the show - a mountainous light structure from which last year's runner-up emerges wearing a twinkling gold jumpsuit that is almost too sparkly for the human eye to bear. Around 30 backing dancers join him on stage with drums to complete the performance.
And in quite the coup, Queen drummer Roger Taylor accompanies Ryder on the drums.
Then we're treated to a section called Liverpool Songbook, with some past Eurovision All Stars singing songs that hail from the host city.
Italy's Soldi singer Mahmood gives us a version of John Lennon's Imagine backed by an impressive live string orchestra (courtesy of the BBC Philharmonic); Israel star Netta descends from the sky in a large silver bird and comes close to taking out several backing dancers in her performance thanks to a large gold star on her back.
Iceland's jumper-loving Dadi Freyr gives us a leftfield cover of Whole Again; anf Sweden's Cornelia Jakobs performs Melanie C's I Turn To You while splashing around in a swimming pool on stage.
Liverpool singer Sonia, who narrowly missed out on the Eurovision crown back in 1993, gives her entry Better The Devil You Know one more turn in a purple mini dress and thigh-high boots; and Netherland's Duncan Lawrence dons a cloak to sing You'll Never Walk Alone.
A short video then pulls together other Eurovision stars who couldn't make the show including Abba's Bjorn Ulvaeus and Italy's 2021 winners Maneskin.
The hosts then bid farewell in English, Ukrainian and French, marking the truly collaborative nature of the event.
With seamless scene changes between the marathon of acts, the run-through ran without a hitch. It all bodes well - unless you believe the old adage - "bad dress rehearsal, good first night".
Bring on the real show, and the winners of the Eurovision Song Contest 2023.
Sky News will be in Liverpool covering all the biggest news from the contest as it happens.