There are many things to praise in this show. For a start, it is packed with Dusty Springfield songs, from the huge hits to earlier titles such as Island of Dreams.
The opening of the first act, with a solo trumpet playing the first few notes of You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, sends shivers down the spine.
Son of a Preacher Man
Grand Opera House, York
Tue Oct 4
The cast (all fourteen of them) act, sing, and dance – often all at the same time – quite brilliantly, with no visible effort at all. Plus, of that fourteen, eleven also play musical instruments onstage.
It’s the most multi-talented ensemble I’ve seen for a while.
Debra Stephenson is heart-breaking as the young widow, Alison. Her voice is utterly beautiful, and she gives her character a truly rounded personality.
I really felt for her on Tuesday night, though, when she collapsed in giggles after a malfunction with the sound. As the rest of the cast carried on around her, we shared her laughter as she fought to get herself under control. When she laughs, she really gives it her all.
It got her the biggest reaction of the night a little later, when Simon (Ian Reddington) revealed a secret to her. “Don’t laugh,” he begged – at which the whole auditorium exploded into laughter. Her ad-libbed response got an even heartier reaction: “I’ll try – but it’s not one of my strong points!”
Ian Reddington gives a wonderfully measured performance as Simon, the son of the preacher man.
If the name sounds familiar, it should. He’s a TV stalwart, most famously as Richard “Tricky Dicky” Cole in EastEnders, and as Vernon Tomlin in Coronation Street. His Simon is gentle, big-hearted and well-meaning, and clearly deserves his own happy ending.
The uncontested star of the show is Diana Vickers. You may have seen her last year, as Janet in The Rocky Horror Show. She plays Kat, the Rotherham teenager, with enormous gusto, and an even more enormous voice.
Her singing style is probably the one out of all the cast best suited to Dusty Springfield’s songs, and she belts them out with huge heart and attitude.
The pathos in her performance of A House Is Not A Home reduced me to tears, just as the version by Dusty herself always does.
Special mention should also go to the Cappuccino Sisters (Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong), waitresses at the coffee shop one floor down from Simon’s flat. Their mannered performances are a delight to watch, and I adored their wacky costumes.
The music in the show is perfectly performed, with the onstage musicians backed up by a keyboard, two guitars and drums hidden away very cleverly in the set.
And oh, the set… so hard working, and so skilfully designed. Parts swing open to reveal other places, signs comes down from the flies to suggest different venues, and a table and chair becomes an entire shop interior.
Onto the script…
So. The cast, the set, the costumes, the music, all glorious. Now comes the “But…”
Warner Brown’s script is clunky, cheesy, and tone-deaf. As a very brief example, surely a teenager of Kat’s age would never describe someone as “dishy”?
Even worse, he does a great disservice to Alison, whose character has been sensitively built up throughout the show by Debra Stephenson.
She is explaining to Kat that her husband died suddenly, just before they were due to go on a cruise. Kat reacts with suitable horror, and Alison says, “Oh, it’s all right – I got the deposit back.” Brown’s going for a cheap laugh completely undermines Debra Stephenson’s performance.
The storyline is full of cliches and coincidences, and plot twists are signalled too clearly, and too far in advance.
He shoehorns the songs into the show with some very awkward phrases and comments. Even the cast look a little embarrassed at times by what they have to say.
I know that no one goes to see a musical for a gritty slice of downbeat realism, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a script that is somewhat rooted in the way people actually speak.
‘They waft together’
Craig Revel Horwood’s direction is, to borrow one of his own phrases, flat-footed and dull, and he really should not keep making one of his main cast (Debra Stephenson) lie on the floor of the stage where people can barely see her.
And his choreography – oh, dear, the choreography. How can he sit there week after week on Strictly, criticising the pro dancers for boring choreography, when this is his attempt?
Imagine sequences of movements performed by chiffon scarves. People waft. They waft in slow-motion. They waft past each other. They waft together.
There are a couple of faster numbers – the tango to Anyone Who Had A Heart, the oddly sexless burlesque dancing and twerking to Some Of Your Lovin’ – but wafting seems to be his go-to choice.
I heard one or two people gushing about how wonderful it was, as we left, but the audience reaction was pretty lacklustre for most of the evening.
By all means go for the songs and the excellent performers, but don’t expect too much from the rest of the show.