All the Fun of the Fair
Music and lyrics by David Essex, book by Jon Conway
Palace Theatre, Manchester, and touring
David Essex stars in a brand new musical 'inspired by' his 1975 album of the same title featuring many of his hits from this and other albums with a story based on his Irish traveller roots on his mother's side.
Essex plays Levi, the owner of a travelling fun fair, struggling to survive in the 1970s. Levi, whose wife was killed in an accident on the motor cycle wall of death, has an on-off relationship with the fair's fortune teller Rosa, just as Levi's son Jack has with Rosa's daughter Mary, but Jack falls for Alice, the daughter of local gangster Harvey, in one of the towns they visit. Although Levi and Harvey find they have a great deal in common, prejudice on both sides forces the young couple to carry on their affair in secret, ultimately with tragic consequences.
There are some obvious reference points to other popular musicals. The obvious would be West Side Story, with its love story of two people from separate warring factions with similar results. However it seems to owe a lot more to Blood Brothers in its basic structure of opening with dire warnings of the tragic ending to the forthcoming story and its continuous undercurrent of superstition and prediction used to manipulate people's actions. However this makes it seem more interesting than it actually is.
There is a great deal of potential in Jon Conway's story, but his script fails to live up to this. Structurally it is all over the place, with lots of story threads mixed up and going nowhere, dialogue that makes you cringe with embarrassment and jokes that were all old and tired thirty years ago when the show is set. A good example is when Harvey is talking to his rather stupid heavy Druid (one of many cliché characters) he asks him, "Are you a moron?" and receives the reply, "No, I'm a Catholic". The comedy rarely gets above this level. It all seems just so 'nice' and friendly and unthreatening, as the bad things happen in very short scenes between lots of friendly bonding, even between the supposedly warring factions, and it is difficult to care very much when the ending suddenly jumps out at you.
Nikolai Foster's direction is also rather uneven. He seems to be trying to show his bravery in having lots of moments of reflective silence in the show, which sometimes works reasonably well and at other times is severely misjudged. In a late scene when Druid comes to the fair to threaten young Jonny into telling him where the young couple is hiding, there are so many long pauses that it becomes boring rather than menacing.
There are some noteworthy performances in the cast. Emma Thornett stands out with an exceptional performance as Mary, and Salford-born Paul-Ryan Carberry, here making his professional debut, is also excellent as intense, brooding Jack who gets many of Essex's famous songs. David Burrows gets something convincing out of the character of Harvey, and 70s Paul Nicholas lookalike Barry Bloxham does his best with the awful lines he has as Druid. Lara Denning did a good job of standing in as Alice in the reviewed performance. Louise English doesn't quite get across either the matriarchal quality or the prophet of doom that the part seems to be hinting at and her Irish accent is rather variable. Essex is fine playing the calm, laid-back Levi, perhaps playing himself but then not everyone can do that convincingly. However in the one moment when he is required to get angry, he is less convincing.
The songs are all sung to recorded backing tracks, but they seem to have been recorded as songs for a record and not for live performance as the arrangements often seem a bit thin and weedy to really drive them in a big venue with chorus singers and dancers. There are some backing vocals on the recording too, giving a rather confusing discrepancy between what you can see happening on stage (and hear live if you are sat near the front) and what you can hear through the PA.
The question must be considered of who this show is aimed at. The crowds of middle-aged women in the audience have no doubt come to see Essex, so wouldn't they prefer to see more of him and less dialogue and songs of his sung by other people, especially those who were shouting out lewd comments to him in the middle of scenes? As a simple pop hits compilation show, there are probably not enough songs and too much dialogue. Essex himself is perhaps aspiring to have a musical theatre success (he has had some memorable appearances in musicals by other people in the past) but this is unlikely to satisfy even the most casual fan of musical theatre.
However despite lots of complaints about the theatre being very cold (which would explain the lack of queues for ice creams at the interval) most of the audience appeared to leave satisfied with their night out to see a 70s pop star.
Running to 1 November
Gail-Nina Anderson reviewed this production in Sunderland in 2009
Reviewer: David Chadderton