Touring – reviewed at Curve Leicester
I am not the target audience for Cilla the Musical. Let me start by saying this as the possible reason why swathes of the audience were stood up around me – dancing, cheering, booking mini-breaks to Liverpool – before the night was out whilst I stayed seated. I admire Bill Kenwright’s instinct for a hit, here carved out of his love of 60s music set in the Midas days of Cavern Club era Liverpool, and the rags-to-riches story of Cilla Black (born White). And although there were some entertaining moments (including that he and co-producer Laurie Mansfield have invested a lot into the production values, which is good to see), I remained cynical of the story, bored by the direction and deafened by the sound levels.
Daughter of a docker and living in a flat with no front door above a barber’s, Cilla is an ordinary working-class northern girl. In the eyes of her mum, her career prospects are exciting because she’s been deemed ‘suitable for office work’. I’m not doubting the humble beginnings of her life, but in Jeff Pope’s book (adapted from the ITV mini-series starring Sheridan Smith) this life is about as ordinary as a bad sitcom: a dotty mum, an irate dad, and a crowbarred physical joke featuring a hairdryer.
I understand that dramatised life stories necessitate elements of fiction. Years of struggle may be truncated down to scenes and edges are rounded in order to create an archness to the narrative that fits into a nearly three-hour show (although surely there could be some trimming here!). But I wonder where the line was drawn between the reality and the fiction.
For me, there is a disconnect between the Cilla Black we see in Cilla the Musical and the Cilla Black I saw on TV when growing up, presenting game shows, and seeming to overcompensate her Liverpudlian accent. There is even a disconnect in the book between act one Cilla and act two Cilla, denying her road manager and eventual husband to take a record deal. The effects of fame, the need to have a voice in a male-dominated era and industry, and the move away from working-class roots are all interesting underlying issues that never fully get explored. I’m convinced, therefore, we are left with an ultimately flattering and partly fictionalised rags to riches story that in reality probably wasn’t so (surprise surprise) Black or White.
Designer Gary McCann turns the stage into the legendary Cavern Club, its bands providing a through-way that links the story. We go from here to Liverpool terraces, Abbey Road studios, the London Palladium and The Ed Sullivan Show in New York and so on. It’s not an innovative set – simply lighting rigs, flats, back cloths and huge ‘Cilla’ lights – but it’s quite attractive and does the job. Less effective in creating a sense of place and atmosphere is Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s direction. A chorus of dancers in the Cavern Club dance in the same spot in each scene and one scene set on way to a football match is completed by a steady stream of background actors crossing the stage shaking their scarves to hammer home the point of what they’re doing. They pad the show out with hit after mediocre hit from the 60s catalogue and there are occasionally uneasy transitions from book to song.
Kara Lily Hayworth is undoubtedly unmatchable in the title role. She is vocally excellent, funny and (I think) perfectly imitates Black. Andrew Lancel fills the role of manager Brian Epstein, an underwritten role in a weak subplot, and Alexander Patmore plays Cilla’s beloved Bobby with a likeable charm. The rest of the cast spend half of their time auditioning for Blood Brothers and the other half nicely imitating 60s celebrities, from Danny La Rue to Burt Bacharach. And what a right bunch of dicks The Beatles are written as!
Overall, Cilla the Musical is a watchable and well-produced show. On the other hand, I think there’s possibly a more interesting story in there. At the end of the show, in front of 12 foot high letters of her name, Cilla and the band sing a number of hits at an unbearably high volume. But a strong 95% of the audience were dancing and won over by the Cilla enigma.
Cilla the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 13th October as part of its UK tour.
Kara Lily Hayworth in Cilla the Musical. Credit: Matt Martin