Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan
Theatre Royal, Newcastle: on tour
I was never a fan of Cliff Richard. My girlfriend was far too keen on him for me to like him. I did see Summer Holiday, however: she insisted! So I approached this new stage version with a somewhat prejudiced history behind me. A nostalgia trip for CR fans, I assumed, with little to offer anyone else.
Some facts about the show, taken from an interview in the programme with the writers:
- One third of the film's dialogue remains;
- Two thirds of the story remains;
- A lot of early Cliff Richard songs have been incorporated, over and above those in the film.
So, another back-catalogue musical, then?
Two strikes - and this was before the curtain went up.
Yes, it's nostalgia: the songs, the theme, most of the story, and the same "squeaky-cleanness" which pervaded the movie. In 1963, when it was released, Cliff Richard's management were repositioning him, changing him from the British Elvis, curled lip and all, to the sort of wholesome boy-next-door that mothers would be delighted to have their daughters bring home - in short, the guy who was to become the "Peter Pan of pop". His three films - Expresso Bongo, The Young Ones and Summer Holiday - were the means to carry out this image change.
And for the audience it certainly was nostalgia. The majority were clearly around when the film first came out - some seemed to have brought children or even grand-children. "This is what it was like when I was a lad (or lass). They don't make films like this any more."
But it's nostalgia repackaged for 2003. No pop group ever played at that volume in the sixties (not even the Stones!). Hugely amplified musicians and singers, added effects (especially reverb), strobes, intelligent lights, rotating gobos... all the technical arsenal of the modern day pop gig/musical. To be honest, I felt at times that the voices were over-produced.
This contrasted with some very low tech props. The bus first makes its appearance as a framework which is flown in and then has panels and wheels added, which worked quite well. From then on it appears as a series of models of varying sizes - a nice touch was when they were crossing the alps and a little model on a stick climbed up a steep slope of fabric! - some of which had minds of their own, or at least wheels which stuck so they would go off course of even bump into flats at the side of the stage. That happened so often that I began to wonder if it was, in fact, deliberate.
The performances were great. The young cast (plus Aimi Macdonald and Christopher Biggins, who are a little more mature, shall we say?) have tremendous energy and give 110 percent. They also catch the essential innocence of the piece, resisting any temptation towards archness to which a show of this nature is wide open. And those who, like me, only know Suzanne Shaw (Bobby) as part of the manufactured pop group Hear'Say, had their eyes opened. She was a dancer, singer and actress long before Popstars, and it shows. And as if to confirm that preconceptions are usually wrong, Stefan Booth (of rather dire soap Hollyoaks) also proved himself a fine performer.
The audience loved it. They were on their feet at the end, clapping in time and singing along, and would quite happily have sat through another hour or so. And it wasn't just the wrinklies of my generation either: I saw one lad who must have been all of thirteen and a girl who wasn't much older joining in just as enthusiastically.
It's a romp, harking back to a time which we like to think of as being more innocent (the Profumo scandal, the defection of Philby, the Aldermaston march, the Great Train Robbery, the assassination of Kennedy, the trial of Nelson Mandela: no, 1963 wasn't that innocent!). It's lively and it's fun, and no, I'm still not a Cliff Richard fan.