All the Fun of the Fair

Music and lyrics by David Essex, book by Jon Conway

Sunderland Empire and touring

(2009)

Review by Gail-Nina Anderson

Once upon a time the music we call jauntily called pop was presented as part of a throw-away culture, here today and replaced by something different tomorrow. If you aim something squarely at an adolescent audience, that ephemerality is almost written in, with music becoming as much a generational fashion statement as a reflection of personal taste. If pop belonged to the young, then performers and music seemed doomed to a brief flourishing, soon looking and sounding too old to convince the requisite age-group, and so doomed to early retirement, career change or an essentially different status as family entertainers.

The coming of the tribute band gave the lie to this generalisation. The original audience was still there, wanting more of the music that defined their youth even if it came in an ersatz package. Unlike performers who had stayed in the business and (dare one say it?) possibly developed beyond their youthful material, the whole point about tribute bands was that they remained the same. Would you rather see the heartthrob of your teenage years looking and sounding disconcertingly middle-aged as they belt out songs about being an angst-ridden teenager, or watch a clever, self-aware replica who seemed to have stepped out of a time-warp? Increasingly it looks as though you might have this very choice, as the pop artistes of assorted late twentieth-century decades, alerted to the nostalgia market, go back on the road, and groups reform to play their old material as though the years hadn’t intervened.

The variant which has edged an essentially musical phenomenon into the world of drama has been the stage (or in the case of Mamma Mia!, movie) musical especially written as a more-or-less dramatised vehicle for a particular set of songs from a particular period or by a particular artist/group. The trouble is that any playwright faced with this task has their work cut out suiting music not written for the stage to anything resembling a viable piece of theatre. Lightly does it is probably the best watchword here – Mamma Mia! shows how it can work, We Will Rock You demonstrates a massive over-reach.

And All the Fun of the Fair, based on the light, bright hits of David Essex, looks initially as though it has found an eminently appropriate setting in the sort of travelling fairground where tacky glitz meets roguish sex-appeal. Sadly, it blows its best chance to celebrate the music and youth culture of the period (setting is 1978) by opting for what is clearly intended to be a bittersweet tale of mismatched lovers, intolerance and inevitable tragedy. The end result is not exactly Romeo and Juliet and it’s not West Side Story either. The drama is paper-thin, written in a kind of stage short-hand where every move is signalled, set out and then explained as well. There’s not a hint of tension as the story plays out with a thumping inevitability that permits virtually nothing in the way of character development or exploration. Perhaps that shouldn’t be expected in a show of this sort, but the crashing shifts from humour to what passes for drama are painfully clumsy – a necessarily simplified story is one thing, but it should still run smoothly. The songs are the reason for the show but the context doesn’t add anything to them, and at times is strained to contain them (let’s all go off to a night club so that we can sing…) With a fairly small cast there isn’t a redeeming element of the spectacular either. While I can see why a down-beat realism might have looked like a good idea, long before the interval I’d have happily traded it for a big chorus line and some candy-coloured dance routines.

It would hardly be fair to criticise performances in a production so flat that no-one had much chance to shine. Newcomer Paul-Ryan Carberry was appealing as Jack, the romantically troublesome young hero, with a strong dash of the original Essex-style charm. Stefan Butler as dim, daft Jonny was the most watchable thing on stage, utilising some effective body-language in a production where performances tended to the stiff and conventional.

And yes, I’ve avoided the big selling-point of the whole concept. All the Fun of the Fair actually stars David Essex as Levi, Jack’s father and the owner of the fairground. As an experienced actor Essex had no trouble with the role, giving a fairly low-key performance and (I mean this in an entirely positive way) effectively acting his age. The voice has aged but sounded plenty good enough for the context and has gained something in expression. The trouble was that at least part of the audience (a part most definitely including the extremely vocal woman sitting beside me) wanted to treat this as an Essex nostalgia night, a concert rather than a musical. Fortunately attempts to clap along to familiar tunes didn’t take off, but the whoops of recognition showed that this was what they had come for – essentially Essex as Essex, still rocking the old numbers. If there was no tension on the stage, there was plenty in the back row where not even the rudiments of theatre manners were observed by people apparently unaware that they were supposed to be following a plot. But where story and characterisation aren’t sufficiently strong, or the staging sufficiently arresting, to engage audience enthusiasm, then a musical of this sort really isn’t much more than familiar songs with annoying interludes.

David Chadderton reviewed this production in Manchester in 2008