You can’t argue with a standing ovation….though I am about to try.
The prolonged applause on the opening night of ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ at Theatre Severn took me completely by surprise. Let me say straight away that the cast deserved it … but, make no mistake, this is an ill-conceived and deeply flawed show.
Oddly, it’s not about Dusty Springfield. It does include a score of her wonderful songs and a seven-inch single of hers is a key prop in the action. But why restrict a show to the back catalogue of one artist, if you’re not going to tell their tale; especially as the story we do get is risible to the point of being vaguely insulting to the audience’s intelligence.
In fact, writer Warner Brown, presents us with an unlikely compendium of three unrequited love stories, which gives the producers plenty of scope for mopping up as many of Dusty’s hits as possible. Young Kat is dating on-line. Teacher Alison is on the verge of an illicit affair with one of her students. And Paul is searching for the man he lost in the 60s.
Their woes bring them to the site of a legendary London record store, presided over in its heyday by a neighbourhood guru called ‘The Preacher Man’. Perhaps he has advice for them? But he’s dead … and the establishment is now a café run by the son of the ‘Preacher Man’…who’s about to make matters worse.
The plot is ponderous, ludicrous, and a touch too ‘mystical’ for its own good. Clues appear from nowhere. The spirit of the old proprietor is invoked to descend upon his son. Co-incidences abound. And characters suddenly act unexpectedly, in a most un-endearing way. Brown claims to write “very, very quickly”. I hope he had to use the back of more than one envelope.
The next big problem is the haphazard direction. This task is credited to the choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, who has actors making incongruous moves and taking up odd positions whilst trying to address the audience. Why kneel down to play the violin? Why sit uncomfortably on the floor to sing?
His nonsensical dance routines seem more concerned with being ‘different’ than graceful. If this choreography were to appear on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ (where Horwood is a judge) he’d have to vote himself off.
So, thank goodness for the professionalism of the cast and the quality of the music.
Nigel Richards drew upon the spirit of Norman Wisdom and the energy of Lee Evans to give us a largely loveable central character; desperate to please, but struggling with his father’s mantel. Michael Howe brought convincing, old-school acting to the role of the gay guy, who can actually remember the 60s. Alice Barlow and Michelle Gayle brought believability to proceedings and sang superbly soulfully.
The leads were backed in the coffee bar setting by the three Cappuccino Sisters, who out-chorused the average chorus line in looks, singing and musicality. For, apart from the rhythm section in the wings, the actors brought their instruments on stage to offer us both totally original, and also nostalgically familiar, arrangements of Dusty’s top tunes. These worked equally well played large, or stripped down for intimacy.
The great ‘La Dust’ was an understanding woman who didn’t always have it easy. So, I imagine, she would be unforgiving about this new show, which takes her name in vain. Personally, I felt as if I’d been mis-sold PPI. But, in the end, you really can’t argue with a standing ovation.
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