Review – Cilla the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th February 2018

Cilla the MusicalOne of the ways in which you can categorise celebrity deaths is whether or not they were expected. In 2015 we said goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Val Doonican, George Cole, Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell, who were all in their 80s or 90s so perhaps they were no shock. But we also lost Keith Harris (and, as a result, Orville too), Errol Brown, and, Surprise Surprise, Cilla Black. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Cilla, who’d been a huge pop star in the 60s, then the mainstay of Saturday night BBC1 entertainment for many seasons; who then bounced back in the 1980s with Surprise Surprise, Blind Date and many other guest appearances and shows; Cilla, who after a few years never needed to use her surname because everyone knew who you meant; Cilla was dead at the age of 72 following a simple fall at her apartment in Spain.

There have been many stories, both before and since her death, about how down to earth she was (or wasn’t), how genuine her Scouse accent was (or wasn’t), and suchlike. I’m not going to go down that path, as Cilla the Musical takes its own occasional sideswipe at her character. There’s no sentimentalising her professional jealousy of Bobby’s upcoming musical career, or how unnecessarily cantankerous she could be in dealings with – for example – Burt Bacharach. But lives are full of intrigue, and if the story of Cilla didn’t dip into a few less rosy aspects of her character or her career, then it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.

Cilla the singerBill Kenwright’s production took Jeff Pope’s brilliant TV series about her life (starring Sheridan Smith) as its inspiration to create a musical that tells the story of her early years as a typist, trying to break into music, meeting Brian Epstein, palling up with the Beatles, recording with George Martin, an unsuccessful attempt to break into the US market, and finishing up with her own Cilla BBC TV show. Maybe there’s nowhere else to go with that particular stage of her life and career, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the story just stopped a bit too early. It utilises the songs of the time – not only Cilla’s hits (not all of them, mind) but also a couple of Beatles numbers, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ I Like It and the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’. It would be wrong to say there isn’t a duff song in the show (those early numbers are a bit weak, and I’m not a fan of Through The Years which rounds it all off) but musically it really packs a punch, with some truly classic hits which really push your nostalgia button.

I loved Gary McCann’s set from the start – a brilliant evocation of the Cavern club, with all those brick archways stretching further and further back; you really get the sense of being in some vibrant, creative basement where extraordinary things could happen. It combines perfectly with Nick Richings’ amazing lighting scheme, which gives vitality to a drab setting transforming it to somewhere genuinely exciting. The big sparkly Cilla sign that heralded in her TV show said everything you needed to know about the dual identity of celebrity – its irresistible flashiness, its essential artificiality.

Cilla the Cavern club performerThe presentation of real-life people on stage is always a sticky wicket. To what extent do you do an impersonation? A half-impersonation? A mere suggestion of the real person? It’s almost impossible to get it right. And this for me is where I have something of a problem with this show. Executive Producer, Robert Willis, Cilla’s real-life son, said “we wanted somebody who wasn’t going to impersonate my mum but someone who could capture her spirit.” Kara Lily Hayworth, who won the open audition to play Cilla, is a splendid singer with a rich, beautiful voice. She also has a great feel for the character, her young cheekiness, her determination; the two moments where she rejects Bobby’s support are so realistically portrayed that they leave you quite breathless with shock. And I think it’s absolutely true – she does capture the spirit of the one and only Cilla.

But Cilla had a unique vocal quality in comparison with the other female performers of her era – the ability to combine the sweetness of the melody with the harsh reality of the lyric. It must have come from her association with George Martin or Lennon/McCartney, because you also see it so clearly in many Beatles’ tracks. Whilst I love (and to be fair, prefer) the big hits of Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw, in some of Cilla’s major recordings there is almost an undercurrent of anger, or violence, or utter sorrow moulded into her phrasing and enunciation. Phrases like “loving you the way I do, I take you back”, “love comes love shows, I give my heart and no one knows that I do” and perhaps most of all “when he hears the things that you did you’ll get a belt from yer dad” are all infused with true desperation or sadness; and I’m sorry to say I don’t think Ms Hayworth conveyed any of those emotions at all.

Cilla the guitaristsWe know that she’s not impersonating Cilla, but simply giving a suggestion of her musical performances whilst singing to her own personal strengths and style. That is a fair enough position to take when you’re recreating a well-known real-life person on stage. The trouble is – the Gerry Marsden impersonation was excellent; the Beatles’ impersonations were pretty spot-on; and the Mamas and Papas sequence was fantastic. In his brief appearance as Ed Sullivan, Alan Howell absolutely captured that rather formal, uncomfortable and stilted manner of speaking that Ed Sullivan had; his slightly patronising tone when he was addressing the youth of the day on his TV show. So when the main character isn’t a strong impersonation, but so many of the other performances are, then it leaves a feeling of unbalance.

For me, Ms Hayworth’s interpretation of Cilla’s songs was simply too pretty, too stylish and insufficiently hard-edged. Singing to a child that he can face physical punishment from his drunk father, with a soft, sweet, optimistic tone, just felt wrong to me. Sometimes I don’t think the very showbizzy arrangements of some of the iconic songs did her any favours. Listen to the original recording of Step Inside Love and feel that haunting and haunted concern at the end where the trailing guitar solo just fades away as if to say… maybe he won’t come back this time. It’s a spine-tingling arrangement by Paul McCartney. In this show, it ends with a triumphant showbiz major key happy ending. That was weird. It wasn’t even as though that’s how they did it on Cilla’s TV show.

Cilla at the PalladiumDon’t get me wrong; Ms Hayworth is a terrific singer and a wonderful new find – I just felt that emotionally she didn’t quite give enough. Mrs Chrisparkle observed that in the very moving scene where Bobby’s and Cilla’s relationship appears to be at an end, their performance of You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ was notable for the way Carl Au’s Bobby absolutely stole the number, with his passion, regret and sorrow, whilst Ms Hayworth was almost a backing singer in comparison. Talking of whom; Carl Au is superb as Bobby. The cheeky lad down the bar; the hapless negotiator; the guilt-laden son; the self-effacing boyfriend; the nervous prospective son-in-law; the desperate one who eats humble pie and asks for forgiveness. He gets them all perfectly, and is also a fantastic singer; his performance of A Taste of Honey is one of the highlights of the evening.

Cilla the managerAndrew Lancel is very convincing as the enigmatic Brian Epstein, a man who had everything and nothing. Softly spoken, quietly manipulative, full of the sexual repression that is heartbreakingly brought out in the juxtaposition with John Lennon’s You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, I thought he really brought the character to life. Tom Sowinski also gives a good representation of George Martin’s extremely polite, business-like but friendly manner. Pauline Fleming and Neil Macdonald are excellent as Cilla’s parents, squeezing every ounce of humour out of their old-fashioned ways. Billie Hardy and Amy Bridges give great support as Cilla’s girl friends and also in a variety of other minor roles.

Hopefully the few snags we saw on the Tuesday night were ironed out for the rest of the run; it was a shame that the emotional scene where Cilla and Bobby hear of the death of Brian Epstein (sorry, spoilers) was almost ruined by frantic running sounds from backstage as cast members tried to get into place for the next scene in time. As it is, when the next scene started, one microphone was swung round too quickly to get into place and hit one of the singers on the nose (I think she may actually have yelped), and some of the solo musicians (very effective brass, by the way) were late getting on to stage so that it all felt a little shambolic. Ah well, first night in a new theatre, and all that.

Cilla the signIt’s a feelgood show that overall looks superb and is full of great songs to enjoy. Whilst it’s not quite a singular sensation in my book, it’s still very enjoyable and if you like a dollop of 60s nostalgia to accompany a fascinating biographical storyline, It’s For You. After Northampton, the tour continues to Newcastle, Chester, Bristol, Woking, Nottingham, Aylesbury and Norwich, with further dates to be announced.

Production photos by Matt Martin

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