Street of Dreams: Coronation Street

Trisha Ward and Damon Rochefort
Reckless Entertainment with ITV Studios and SMG Europe
Manchester Arena

Street of Dreams
Kym Marsh and Jodie Prenger, both as Elsie Tanner Credit: Rob Evans
Street of Dreams

In 2010 when Britain’s most famous street was about to celebrate its 50th glorious year on screen, composer and lyricist Tricia Ward felt it was time that Coronation Street was honoured in the musical genre. She put together Rogues, Angels, Heroes and Fools a well-received highlights album of her project; now, two years later, the arena event has come to fruition, with the songs from the album forming the heart of the production.

The evening is a sequence of set-piece songs which tell the stories of the iconic characters but often in a composite fashion. The songs are linked by two narrators. Sharp-tongued TV Presenter Paul O'Grady is a life long fan of the Street so an apt choice and makes his usual strong connection with the audience. He is joined by Katy Cavanagh who plays Julie Carp on screen but here portrays The Angel of the North. If you think of a very northern fairy godmother from pantomime you have it about right. Katy has a sure comic touch as she regularly shows on screen. It felt rather odd however that the first 10 minutes or so elapsed with the two talking to the audience before the first song arrived. It was also unfortunate that the start was delayed for 20 minutes.

Like the soap itself, the real star of the show is the set. The production team lead by director / designer John Stephenson has worked hard to evoke the iconic street with its beautifully detailed Rovers Return pub and assorted houses, phone box and corner shop. As the story unfolds, the various characters sing about their lives in their respective homes which open out in picture book fashion as do the pub and the corner shop when appropriate. This device works pretty well for the most part although Paul O'Grady does not always appear as comfortable as the others with the singing and the movement.

As the Street set dominates the performance area sometimes the dancing lacks depth, though there is much energy in the choreography by Karen Bruce. Some of the stage pictures are really striking. Particularly successful are the tableaux of the giant butterflies in the Sean Tully sequence and the effect of the whole company facing the audience as real flames rise from the footlights as the tram crash happens on the screen above.

The core of the cast are made up to resemble the well-known characters ranging from Ena Sharples, Martha Longhurst and Ken Barlow through to Jack and Vera Duckworth, Elsie Tanner and Bet Lynch. More recent TV favourites include Sean Tully and Becky Macdonald. While there may be some missing faces, most members of the audience—including this Corrie fan reviewer—seemed happy with the array on offer. The movement through the years is cleverly realised by changing the date on the filmed passport of Martha Longhurst.

Standouts in this talented cast include Jenna Boyd as a taciturn Ena Sharples who performs the opening number with lugubrious glee, completely in keeping with the tone Violet Carson set from the opening episode of the soap in 1960. Also shining especially brightly were Ricky Butt as Martha Longhurst, whom we see die in the snug on the TV screen as she also expires on stage, and Andrew Derbyshire as machinist Sean Tully whose dreams of being more than a simple gusset sewer are beautifully rendered. Andrew had perhaps the strongest voice on the stage matched only by special guest artist Russell Watson.

One of the most spectacular effects is when Andrew flies across the Arena wearing the butterfly wings featured in the lyrics of his number "Sweet Butterfly". "He’s my Man" is perhaps the most tuneful of the songs in the score, powerfully sung by Rachael Wooding and Kym Marsh as Rita Fairclough and the young Elsie Tanner. West End star Jodie Prenger joins Kym Marsh later in another power ballad as Elsie’s mature incarnation.

As the action happens on the street set, it is complemented by a huge TV screen above showing close ups of what is on stage as well as original footage from the TV show. Generally this works very well but sometimes it is distracting, and especially when the TV clips are more compelling than what is happening live.

As the show moved towards the end of the first half, the stage is populated by myriad Bet Lynch lookalikes who dance a number in the style of Bob Fosse from Sweet Charity. This leads up to the much-anticipated appearance of Julie Goodyear as classic character Bet Lynch. The auditorium erupted when she made her entrance wearing a lavishly regal leopard skin and gold outfit.

The second half begins with Paul O'Grady arriving through the auditorium to complain about the price of refreshments. Long time Corrie favourite Kevin Kennedy sings as Curly Watts a touching song about his love for his wife Raquel, whom we see in a classic clip. Compelling villain Richard Hillman appears played by screen star Brian Capron. The dancers dressed as him display their briefcases threateningly while the stage is bathed in red and his story is replayed on the TV screen.

Another highlight of this second act is when Russell Watson sings "Take My Hand" as Paul O'Grady explores the ghosts of former characters. The whole company joins in, and this feels like the end of the show, but there is one further song that feels rather superfluous, "Eh Chuck", which could really have begun the evening. It doesn't add anything to the ending.

Overall this show delivers. The audience was clearly filled with Coronation Street fans of all ages and with the applause and the occasional ovations expectations are well met. The 25-piece band performs admirably under the baton of musical director Mike Dixon, although sometimes the volume levels edge towards too loud for this reviewer.

The audience particularly enjoyed the brief and specially filmed appearance of the veteran star William Roache, who is the only remaining original cast member. Corrie’s original deviser Tony Warren was in the Arena to witness this latest incarnation of his creation. Though director John Stephenson should be proud of the production it is not clear whether the amalgam or the songs will be strong enough to indicate a West End run.

Reviewer: Andrew Edwards