Edinburgh Playhouse – until 30 January 2016
Reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Considerable musicality and dollops of goodwill cannot hide the huge basic problems at the heart of The Glenn Miller Story.
As a piece of theatre it is undistinguished, and it has been conceived as a vehicle for someone who, while undoubtedly talented, is unsuited for their role.
Glenn Miller’s disappearance in the English Channel in 1944 at the height of his fame as the leader of a swing big band has intrigued many and, like many a similarly dramatic death, cemented his place in popular culture and legend. The latest attempt at reviving his legacy comes in the form of Bill Kenwright’s touring production, somewhat surprisingly developed with 50s teen idol turned all-round artiste Tommy Steele in mind.
Steele, at a few months short of his 80th birthday, is still in remarkably good voice, and can still get about the stage – even if his dancing is more of a nonchalant shuffle rather than full-blooded hoofing. However, there is no escaping the fact that he is far too old to convince as Miller, whose disappearance took place at the age of 40.
At first, it appears that Steele is going to be more of a narrator figure; then, as it becomes obvious he is playing the part of Miller himself, it seems he is going to essay the role using his normal voice. After a while, however, it becomes clear that he is trying – and failing – to use an American accent.
Steele appears to be more aware than anyone that he should not be playing this role. There is no getting away from it: a younger performer should have played Miller, leaving Steele to narrate and provide the musical numbers. The (uncredited) book is so sketchy that this would not have impacted on the show too greatly.
The absurdity of it all is most noticeable in Miller’s interactions with his wife Helen, played by the impressive Sarah Soetaert. Their early scenes look more like a kindly young woman aiding her ageing grandfather, while their parting as he goes off to war cannot help spark off feelings of unease.
Unfortunately, this unease is just about the only emotion evoked here. Attempts at humour raise barely a titter, and even Miller’s disappearance has no real impact. Supporting characters are barely two-dimensional, and any insight into how a dance-band arranger became such an iconic, best-selling figure, despite many considering his music to be somewhat stiff and cold, is lacking.
All concerned seem well aware of this, and the show plays to its strengths in the second half by jettisoning any pretence at a storyline and instead presenting a sequence of familiar musical numbers. By the finale, with the leading man able to indulge his penchant for audience interaction – including one welcome old pantomime joke – it is as if a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders, as he gets to do what he knows he should have been doing all along.
skill and panache
There is much to admire in the staging of the music – a full 16-piece band provide stalwart backing, and Bill Deamer’s choreography is executed with skill and panache by the dancers. However, this merely puts the rest into even sharper focus – and makes it unfortunate that the first half sees the dancers underused and the band hidden.
Steele even says that if you don’t know the words to the songs ‘you’re at the wrong show’. This encapsulates the problem – for the converted, anything will be forgiven.
There is enough love from so many for Tommy Steele to carry him through shows worse than this. If you are a die-hard fan of him or Miller, you will find enough here for your money’s worth. For anyone else, the lack of any attempt to produce a coherent show may prove baffling.
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, Edinburgh, EH1 3AA
Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 January 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.
Full details and tickets on the Playhouse website: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-glenn-miller-story/edinburgh-playhouse/
The Glenn Miller Story on tour 2016:
0844 871 3014
Bord Gais Theatre
His Majesty’s Theatre
01323 412 000
0844 871 3012
29 Feb-5 Mar
0844 871 3017