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New Theatre, Oxford

At one level this is just another well-put-together biographical show in the tried and true genre of musicals based on the career and hits of a star, in this case, Cilla Black. All that is to be expected from this type of show is there, just like the old Hollywood films of the1940s like The Jolson Story or a more recent musical such as Jersey Boys. This one is telling the tale of the Mersey Sound Era. So yes, as well as Cilla, you also get the Beatles and Brian Epstein and more. You also do get a clear sense of the whole culture of the time and place in which these artists broke through. There is a fair amount of actual dramatic reconstruction of events.

It is, of course, a great pleasure to hear the music well performed live; and the staging is excellent. The script by Jeff Pope not only tells the story clearly, it tells it with real feeling so that you do come away with a sense of the lives as they were lived, the difficulties of the sudden arrival of fame and adulation for the musicians, the seriousness of their commitment to their work. A lot of the best music used in; and also some of the songs – such as Alfie – are important to the story.

You also get a sense of the limitations and prejudices of that era and of the real psychological struggles and costs to someone like Brian Epstein or Cilla herself. You can practically feel the pressures. And there is some unsubtle but perfectly pleasant light relief from characters such as Cilla’s parents and their salt-of-the-earth reactions to what is happening.

The producers and directors have been very fortunate in the cast. Without trying simply to impersonate the famous characters, they all act skilfully, convincingly portraying character development with amazing energy, as well as being extremely capable musicians who can sell the songs. The audience loved it and was clearly especially delighted by Kara Lily Hayworth as Cilla. Carl Au is superb and memorable as her beloved husband Bobby Willis and the story centres on the ups and downs of their love, the rough ride they had in the early years as they tried to cope with the pressures of Cilla Black’s sudden success. Most of all, though, they both convey a strong sense of the actual talent and abilities of the people they are playing; and my only quibble is that I wish Carl Au had had more to sing!

I was moved by Andrew Lancel’s excellent portrayal of the troubled and talented Brian Epstein and was impressed by the staging both of the script and of the numbers. The choreography was very stylish and very much in the style of the era.

Cilla, The Musical started in Liverpool and is due to keep touring until April at the moment, but my grapevine suggests that it might carry on after that. If it comes to a theatre near you and if you fancy a night listening to a good deal of Mersey Sound Music and/or are keen to learn more about the life and personality of Cilla Black and of the friends and colleagues who surrounded her, then you should definitely see this one. It is kind of the British Jersey Boys only this time it is the story of a marvellous Mersey Girl!

  • Musical
  • Author: Jeff Pope
  • Director: Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson
  • Choreographer: Carole Todd
  • Cast Includes: Kara Lilly Hayworth, Carl Au, Andrew Lancel, Pauline Fleming, Neil MacDonald, Bill Caple, Tom Chistian
  • New Theatre, Oxford
  • Until 17 February2018 and then touring

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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