FringeReview UK 2018
Craig Revel-Horwood’s direction choreography and musical staging round Dusty Springfield’s greatest hits meet Warner Brown’s book. Morgan Large’s frantically receding buildings with one opening its jaws to reveal a coffee shop, much of the set in purples, mauves and various milk-bar glares courtesy of Richard G Jones’ lighting. Paul Herbert’s musical arrangements extend to adding trombones and cellos, Brady Mould directing the live ensemble. David James Hulston both co-directs and musically stages the whole.
Anyone who’s seen Craig Revel-Horwood’s magnificent revival – rescue even – of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard with Catharine Evans might guess at some of the musical swivellings about to unfold here. His direction choreography and musical staging round Dusty Springfield’s greatest hits meet Warner Brown’s book. Brown provides some clunks but no doubt about the delivery of Dusty’s music and deft in-jokes – in an otherwise Dusty-free zone.
We’re in Soho with Morgan Large’s frantically receding buildings with one opening its jaws to reveal a coffee shop, much of the set in purples, mauves and various milk-bar glares courtesy of Richard G Jones’ lighting.
Paul Herbert’s musical arrangements extend to adding trombones and cellos, Brady Mould directing the live ensemble. David James Hulston both co-directs and musically stages it – tricky work in variable acoustics. The great thing here is that the sound level’s excellent with no distortion. Too often it’s been horrendously loud.
It’s the kind of integration Revel-Horwood produced back in 2009, to Dusty numbers; though a trombone too far in ‘I Don’t Know what to Do with Myself’ suggests that if you demand a quadruple threat from cast, you’ve got to give them something to blow off. No matter: they’re all stunning.
So this is what’s become of the famed Sixties Preacher Man shop, where its owner dispensed agony advice to generations. And three different ones just collide in search of it. Let that improbability slide off like pink rayon and it gets better.
Paul (Michael Howe), who was there (he’s only fifties now but let that pass) is in search of an old unrequited flame. A-level tutor Alison’s nursing premature widowhood and a crush on someone really inappropriate. Michelle Gayle’s thirty-something then remembers her mother’s advice: go to the Preacher Man. That’s what her grandmother said to nineteen-year old Kat too, played appealingly by Alice Barlow. And she’s about to be thrown out of their shared council flat in Rotherham. She’s met someone on Match.com and thinks he’s ignoring her. So they fetch up twice and sing about it. The first meeting should have been deleted since they introduce themselves second time round.
Either way, they only find the shy reclusive coffee-house owner Simon, yes the Son of the Preacher Man since his father’s long dead. Nigel Richards winningly suggests a hapless warm-hearted loner morphing to goofy heroics that at first go spectacularly wrong earning the soubriquet Simple Simon (was he named just for that?). Despite his reclusive habits, Simon’s somehow hired the effervescent Cappuccino Sisters (Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty, Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong) to serve and sing before they hit the big time… they don’t serve tea here either.
Alice Barlow shines early in ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ with a strong soprano nevertheless smoky enough to evoke Dusty’s blue-eyed soul mezzo, and is the one who channels her most. The Cappuccino Sisters carry ‘The Look of Love’ with funky syncopations at times to speed up its languorous rhythms.
Gayle’s strengths are more than evident in her singing and dancing – though she doesn’t always get the best tunes in ‘All I See is You’, but her distinctive vocality and presence make up for her getting the most muted story-line, quite apart from its dodgy start.
The most haunting re-imagining though is the magnificent ‘I Just Don’t Know what To Do With Myself’ sung by a group of bereaved Linked Hands Members, slowly dancing with plastic chairs, In particular Rachael McAllister’s high lyric soprano cuts through achingly and Lewis Kidd’s high tessitura answers it, with fine work in between by Ellie-Jane Goddard and Liam Vincent-Kilbride. McAllister and Kidd ensure it’s a treasurable moment. Another with Kidd and Vincent-Kilbride mimicking the earlier selves of Paul and his love-interest Jack is etched fleetingly. Soon after ‘Wishin’ & Hopin’ score an effective close to Act One bar reprises.
There’s a run of decent hits but again it’s Revel-Horwood’s imagining of ‘A House is Not a Home’ as an aching ensemble piece with the principals reflecting on couplings and potential de-couplings. Howe plays a mean guitar too sharing with Goddard the honours in ‘Spooky’. The older Jack, Jon Bonner, another instrumentalist too, makes his presence felt at this juncture.
There’s some shoehorning as the fine Vincent-Kilbride as Mike the Scottish kilted plumber suddenly revises his rejection of lovely amorous Kat in ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ because he’s overheard something: the choreography’s a parody of all those lifts and upendings you see in other shows, even dare I say it, Strictly. Accompanied by punctuated yelps from Barlow it somehow conveys the darker registers of the song while you wish it could have been given a more heartfelt treatment: perhaps by Barlow before this incident. And there could have been a hint or two before about her grandmother, given the plot-point near the end. Even better, to counterpoint the fine Vincent-Kilbride, Gayle’s character and her developing feelings might have been given ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ to redeem its sentiments in a completely different manner – and prepare us for her quiet declaration.
Elsewhere a far more attractive ensemble piece is brewing. There’s a double swap of romantic interests and a satisfying conclusion to the storyline, just a bit incredible again (this only needs a little work) and a sextet of potential lovers reflect on ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love me’ in a touching share-out. And finally we do get ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ with Barlow again in the lead, making it work too.
If you can get over the clunks – and just a little rewriting would make all the difference – Son of a Preacher man has real potential. It’s easily more than a cut above a jukebox musical, and Revel-Horwood’s work particularly coupled with Herbert’s musical arrangements is exemplary. As is the marvellous and marvellously hard-working ensemble.