It helps when you see a show if you take along someone who actually remembers the era the show was set in. When I saw ‘Sunny Afternoon’ at the Wales Millennium Centre, my theatre companion (who happens to be my Mum) remembered the energy and the buzz of the musical revolution of the 60s.
Through them, you get to imagine what it was like – they are the ‘litmus paper’ for the legitimacy and authenticity of the storyline, the music, the fashion and the dancing. Sunny Afternoon captured the wonder, the outrage and the rebellion of the era – and even if you have no direct experience of it, you admired it and felt part of it. It was beautifully done without overly relying on nostalgia and famous songs. Although I didn’t know anything about Dusty’s life, I knew many of her songs through my mother and was hoping for a feel-good good show which would bring her original material to life – perhaps even a sense of nostalgia for my own childhood, where I spent many happy hours dancing in the kitchen and living room to my mother’s vinyl records.
Son of a Preacher man is clearly written to cater to the boomers and the sense of nostalgia they feel about their teens. The British public clearly still have a sense of loyalty and affection towards Dusty Springfield, whose memorable songs were the soundtrack to their youth.
My mother recalls seeing Dusty Springfield perform in Cardiff during her teens. In a nod to the rivalry (real or imagined) between Dusty and Sandy Shaw, Dusty came on stage wearing massive comedy feet – taking a pop at Sandy’s reputation for singing on stage while barefoot. Perhaps this is testament to Dusty’s rebellious spirit and humour. I hadn’t known until my Mother relayed it to me in the interval but Dusty’s real life was marred by a set of tragic and difficult events, from her early childhood in a children’s home run by Catholic nuns, to being in the closet then losing her eyesight at an early age.
The production doesn’t really pick up much on Dusty’s legacy or life story – this is a show punctuated by her musical repertoire plus a few additional tracks from the era. This production looks back wistfully at a more innocent time – spent in Saturdays in record shops, dancing, and dating.
The three central characters all have a connection with the ‘Preacher Man’s’ record shop. Somehow they all end up going back to find him – and find their histories and collective futures become intertwined. We blend in an out of the 60s back to present day, through the youngest character Kat (played by Alice Barlow), Michelle Gayle’s character Alison and Paul – who on the night I attended was played by Gary Mitchinson.
Audiences will surely remember Michelle Gayle, best known for playing ‘Hattie’ in Eastenders and releasing a number of hits in the 90s including ‘Sweetness’. Her role as Alison is a little awkward at times – she doesn’t really suit the character she plays.
Hats off though to two of the show’s stand out stars – the incredible Alice Barlow who played Kat – her vocals were incredible and she is magnetic on stage. Also, the charismatic Nigel Richards who plays Simon (The Son of a Preacher Man) had a beautiful baritone voice and great comic delivery.
It was easy to forgive some of the cliches of the script when Alice Barlow was performing. It’s a credit to the cast that they were able to rescue the credibility of the show with their fabulous ensemble performances and blended vocals. Michelle Gayle is far too fabulous for the role of Alison – but her vocal performance is still hitting the spot years after ‘Sweetness’ was released and she is an accomplished singer and dancer.
The jury is still out on how well the show straddles both the 60s flashbacks and present-day vignettes. We get scenes talking about Tinder interjected with a cheeseball 60s routine with an unhealthy dose of Dad-dancing. So much Dad-dancing! But perhaps I wasn’t the right demographic for this show. When I whispered to my Mum ‘Look at that Dad dancing!’ she said ‘That what it was like – it WAS hammy and cheesy.’
Perhaps best known for his attachment to the show as Director with a musical staging credit is Strictly Come Dancing’s outrageous judge Craig Revel Horwood. His flamboyant touches are evident throughout – and don’t always land in the way they are perhaps intended – the ‘Cappucino Sisters’ deviate between 60s dancing and the occasional twerk, bump and grind.
I’m going to be frank. The story was a little…underwhelming. A teacher falling in love with a teenage boy, a teenager falling in love with someone she saw on Tinder and a man who is still in love with a guy he danced with a few times in the 60s. It was weak and was held up (just about) from the talent of this great cast and fabulous on-stage musicians. For me (and I speak as a lover of the poptastic and the cheesetastic), I found certain elements a little cringeworthy. The show was overly wistful, the opening scenes with the smoke and the ‘I remember it…. I remember it….I STILL remember it…’ were overdone and made me fear for what was ahead.
Was it just me?
Apparently not, according to the criticisms I heard in the queue in the lady’s loo during the interval. You know you’re in trouble as a theatre producer when you hear a lady say to her friends “The music is brilliant, but the story! It’s like pulling teeth” and everyone else in the queue laughs and agrees.
Theatre producers should be made to listen to reviews of their shows in ladies loos – they could learn a thing or two and perhaps even improve it before they tour with it.
Musical theatre isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some complain that songs are shoehorned in, there are too many ‘filler songs’ and some even dread the moment an actor starts singing. With this production, I found myself hoping they would hurry up and get to the song. It’s hard not to enjoy the music and it’s done really well – it’s the saving grace of the production. But It’s such a shame the show didn’t quite hit the mark. It just doesn’t quite match up to the true legacy of Dusty Springfield – and she deserved better.
If you’re a die-hard Dusty fan, you need to take the show with a pinch of salt and keep a (very) open mind. If you go – go along for the ride, have a few glasses of vino and enjoy the music. The story is a bit of a stinking bishop, but who doesn’t love and look forward to a slice of cheddar or a Dairylea triangle now and again?
Son of a Preacher man is currently on tour and will play in Venue Cymru in Llandudno on May 29th-June 2nd. The production will then visit King’s Lynn Corn Exchange in Norfolk, Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, Orchard Theatre in Dartford and Empire Theatre in Liverpool.