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Posts Tagged ‘Jersey Boys’

I’m surprised that there’s been little or no mention that this is the second Tina Turner jukebox musical, the first just six years ago, transferring from Hackney Empire to the Savoy Theatre for a short summer run (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/soul-sister). The previous one had much to enjoy, but this is on another level altogether. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who virtually invented the modern day jukebox musical with Mamma Mia, seen in 40 countries, still running in London after 19 years, now almost next door to this, returns with what might be its pinnacle.

Like those other great jukebox musicals – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon & Beautiful – it’s biographical. Tina’s story begins in her childhood church in Tennessee with a brilliant gospel version of Nutbush City Limits. She’s abandoned by her mum, then her dad, and lives with her grandma until her death, after which she goes to live with her mother and sister in St. Louis. Here she meets Ike and so begins the years of success, and abuse. When she finally plucks up the courage to leave him, he continues to exert control over her repertoire and she ends up lost and broke in Las Vegas. Her only hope is new material, and she finds that by following young Aussie Roger Davies to London. The rest, as they say, is history.

Katori Hall has made a great job of telling the story through her excellent book and the production oozes quality in every department, from Anthony van Laast’s choreography, recreating some of Tina’s somewhat quirky moves, Mark Thompson’s designs, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound to Tom Kelly’s terrific band. The show ends with the now customary mini-concert, allowing the audience to indulge in the singing and dancing they’ve been suppressing for 2.5 hours, during which there was a lovely moment when Tina duets with her childhood self.

Adrienne Warren is the embodiment of Tina in a sensational performance; she has the same extraordinary audience contact Tina had. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who I last saw as Laertes in Hamlet (!) is a revelation as Ike, though he did veer towards caricature occasionally. In a superb supporting cast, I really liked Ryan O’Donnell as Davies, Madeline Appiah as Tina’s mum and Lorna Gayle as grandma.

A show that lives up to the hype, and more.

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The soundtrack of my late teenage years was heavily influenced by John Peel, who introduced me to bands like Family, The Incredible String Band and Tyrannosaurus Rex, whose four albums I treasured, and still do (I’ve recently bought them on CD). Peel thought Bolan sold out when Tyrannosaurus Rex became T. Rex (a name change that was Tony Visconti’s idea, it seems). I fought this for a while, as Bolan was by now a musical hero of mine, but it wasn’t long before I was in agreement. It was all downhill from A Beard of Stars, the last Tyrannosaurus Rex album, a masterpiece. My view is that Bolan’s ego smothered and killed his genius, but I couldn’t resist this biographical show on my doorstep, well, in Kingston.

It’s a huge biographical arc, something like fifteen years, which is ambitious and at first seems rushed. They badly neglect the period from 1968 to 1970, the four folk / psychedelic / mystical albums, each bettering the last (well, I would think that, wouldn’t I). If I was nit-picking, there are a number of historical inaccuracies, like his audition piece for Simon Napier-Bell being a song he wrote three or four years later. Sometimes I thought Bolan was a bit tongue-in-cheek, like the infamous guitar lead in his back pocket on Top of the Pops, and the show sometimes has a bit of a tongue-in-cheek quality about it too. It’s at its strongest musically, with a judicious smattering of other people’s songs that fit the story (who knew Helen Shapiro was a friend and early colleague?!); music director John Maher has done a great job.

The production values are a bit AmDram and the staging doesn’t flow well enough, with some scene breaks way too long. In truth, the Rose isn’t the right theatre for it. Unlike a proscenium theatre, there’s no hiding place. To be honest, I think they could do with a stage director, as John Maher also directs. It could also do with losing 10-20 minutes; it doesn’t really sustain its three hours. As is customary with this genre, it ends with a mini-concert, with the audience on its feet. Both the cast and band are good, with George Maguire (promoted from Ray’s younger brother Dave in the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon) perfectly flamboyant as Bolan, but please don’t get me on to the wig, or indeed the wigs in general.

It’s not up there with other bio-musicals like Jersey Boys, Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon, but I’m glad I caught it, though it was surreal looking around at T.Rex fans now in their sixties (senior concessions!) wearing their feather boas, pieces of which I was picking out of my jumper on the way home.

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When you watch X-Factor on the weekend, remember there was once a time when pop groups learned their craft by hard slog and trial & error. The Beatles would never have been the greatest band the world has ever seen if they hadn’t spent the best part of two years playing lengthy sets in the Cavern in Liverpool and in much seedier clubs in Hamburg.

What Backbeat does by focusing on this brief but intense and important period is show us how it all began. The fact that it uses young actors who have recently learnt, and are still learning, to sing and play gives it an authenticity which brings the story alive. It’s not a musical; it’s a play – but the musical sequences are crucial and become increasingly competent and exciting as the story develops. They’d sound a lot better played by professional musicians, but that would miss the point and be a lot less true to the story. I loved the rawness and raggedness of the music because it felt so real.

In this period, of course, original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe looms large. Lennon’s art school mate who can’t play a note but is super-cool joins the band, falls for photographer Astrid Kirchherr & steals her from fellow artist Klaus Voorman, leaves the band for Hamburg Art School (under Edward Paolozzi no less – even this Beatles obsessive didn’t know that!) and dies tragically. Paul switches to bass and Pete Best is dumped for Ringo and the rest is history. When they put on Astrid’s jackets and strike the first chords of Love Me Do, there was a shiver up my spine and a tear in my eye. This is where the musical soundtrack of my life really began.

It really does tell the story well. Comparisons with Jersey Boys are unfair –  this is not a biographical retrospective on a spectacular scale with a band’s entire back catalogue; it’s a play focusing in more depth on a short formative period. Both are great, but completely different.

They actors don’t impersonate the fab four (five) but they brilliantly convey the essence if the people. Andrew Knott has Lennon’s attitude, power and influence and Daniel Healy’s McCartney is the more serious, and seriously ambitious, musician (with spot-on nodding!). Will Payne captures the much younger George, quietly in awe of the others, growing up before your eyes. There’s less pressure on Oliver Bennett as Pete Best and Nick Blood as Sutcliffe as we know less of their characters, but they’re both excellent. Adam Sopp’s Ringo only arrives in the final scene, but his inimitable grin made me smile.

There isn’t a moment wasted in David Leveaux’s staging and the design team of Christopher Oram, Andrew D Edwards, Howard Harrison, David Holmes, Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn have created an environment which allows a fluid flow from scene to scene and location to location.

I loved this show, and I don’t think that’s entirely because of how much The Beatles meant to me. It’s a great story well told. They don’t even get to use that extraordinary back catalogue – we never get beyond Love Me Do – yet you can hear the beginnings of that sound that has not been equalled in the fifty years that have passed since. Give X-Factor a miss and find out how real talent develops.

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