Wimbledon Theatre, London
November 7, 2017
Things have changed a lot since Priscilla White began her career in the Liverpool clubs nearly 60 years ago. Adapted from the ITV mini-series by Jeff Pope and based on the early life of Cilla Black, Cilla – The Musical covers her career up to the point she had her own television show in the late 1960s. If you want a nostalgic trip down musical memory lane, you’ll probably walk away happy, but it only occasionally really gets to grips with the story and is too often a missed opportunity.
Her story is told linearly and, in the first act especially, very slowly. While Cilla – The Musical makes a good fist of conjuring up working class Liverpool, rife with sectarianism and relative poverty (two of Cilla’s early ambitions are to have an inside lavatory and her own front door; her parent’s accommodation being accessed via a hairdressers’ shop), any other context is entirely absent.
Gary McCann’s Liverpool backcloth of terraced houses is beautifully painted, but the sets are perfunctory. There is no sense of the swinging sixties sweeping away the post-war austerity and moral mores. One nice touch, though, is the Giles Gilbert Scott telephone box that comes on twice; a reminder that Cilla heard of both her failure and her triumph in the charts while waiting in the street for Brian Epstein to call her on a public telephone.
Much is made of the Beatles, and Bill Caple, Joshua Gannon, Michael Hawkins and Alex Harford offer a good re-creation. The moments where the show comes alive include an explanation of how their song ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ was written by Lennon in frustration at having to keep his marriage and child a secret from the public to boost record sales. Cleverly, it is later given to Brian Epstein (a top-notch performance from Andrew Lancel) to underline his then illegal homosexuality, an inference that was mooted by gay singer Tom Robinson. What a pity there are not more moments like this that offered some depth and sense of period. It’s a shame we don’t get to hear other Merseybeat songs such as those by Gerry and the Pacemakers.
The biggest problem with Cilla – The Musical is that it’s short on dramatic input, relying almost entirely on songs to tug at nostalgia. In fact, there are almost too many to sustain the interest. Cilla Black had only two number ones, both in her early career. Some lesser known numbers could easily have been omitted as none advance the storyline.
It is also a pity that Nick Richings’ lighting is totally incongruous, making no attempt to recreate the period. It also regularly and annoyingly flickers distractingly on the audience. Dan Samson’s sound does the singers no favours either. The amplification would be more suited to an arena than a Victorian theatre.
The chorus are under used in the club scenes. The odd lines that some are given as solos are unsupported and at times, out of tune; backing singers being as flat as pancakes behind poor Carl Au’s mellifluously voiced Bobby. Carole Todd’s choreography is tokenistic, perhaps because the chorus do not have sufficient technique to pull off something better. Might we not have expected to see at least some attempt the twist during ‘Twist and Shout’? There is a little desultory jiving, but otherwise not much else. Oh how we empathise with Cilla when she says that the choreography is totally wrong on her appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.
Sadly, the cameo of Danny la Rue is not credited. His short scene is a real show-stealer. Big Cilla is seemingly fooled by his appearance, but not her husband, the excellent Paul Broughton, because he is worldly-wise having “been in the merchant navy” as he so often informs us. Oddly, the incongruity of a bejewelled, befeathered drag queen, dressed as no woman ever would be, singing a song from a boy to a girl as they daydream about a rural idyll whilst living in a slum never struck me before. It spoke redolently of times past though as la Rue exited stage left singing ‘On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’.
Kara Lily Hayworth’s Cilla comes in and out of believability. She has a strong voice that is well-supported and with a good range, although the amplification spoils the quality. Carl Au has an easier time as Bobby, following her around like a lovesick puppy. Again, the evening suddenly comes alive with their one good dramatic scene as Black’s ruthless pursuit of her own career stifles his. Their duet however is drowned out by the band.
It’s a bit mean to make Hayworth appear in the same dress for the finale as she does for her Palladium spot, stunning though it is. Cilla talks about her eagerly acquired and much coveted green shoes and matching handbag, but costumes are mostly unmemorable, again there being no sense of the rise of Mary Quant and British fashion.
The 1960s was probably the last decade where dancing was a part of mass entertainment as well as mass attainment. What a pity that this is not reflected to give Cilla – The Musical a more rounded approach and to elevate it beyond mere nostalgia engendered by reproductions of easy listening songs.
Cilla – The Musical continues on tour. Visit www.cillathemusical.com for dates and venues.