Following the death of the nation’s sweetheart in 2015, a critically acclaimed ITV biographical mini-series aired, which depicted Cilla Black’s rise to fame and her relationship with Bobby Willis. Kenwright’s stage production then followed suit, as an adaptation of aforementioned TV series. Rather than a morbid retelling of a person’s life after their death, Cilla was aware and involved in the decision making process of both of these projects before her death, making it seem more poignant and less of a money-spinner (in my books).
Born Priscilla Maria Veronica White in Liverpool in 1943, Cilla was a naturally gifted performer but was initially busy pursuing a job as a typist after being deemed “suitable for office work” (much to her mum’s delight) by her school. After being introduced to manager Brian Epstein by her friend John Lennon, Cilla begins her rocky road to stardom.
Kara Lily Hayworth (Cilla) makes a fantastic tribute to the star. Towards the start of the show, her acting was wooden and her Liverpudlian accent wasn’t quite right, but by the latter half of act one she really settled into the role. By act two, it was like actually watching Cilla herself. Kara’s performance was moving to watch and her vocals were astounding. Cilla’s son, Robert Willis, has previously said that he thinks his mother would have been delighted with the casting choice and I can see why.
There were significant sound balancing issues at times throughout the show. During the huge hit of Anyone Who Had A Heart – famous for being the hit that saw Cilla soar up the charts to her first number one record – you could barely hear Kara at all as she was totally drowned out by the deafeningly loud band. It was such a shame as, from what I did hear, Kara was doing an incredibly rendition. The sound issues were also apparent for other songs such as You’re My World and Step Inside Love.
The last company piece seemed slightly bizarre and a very traditional / old fashioned way of bringing a production to its finale, as it brought all the characters return to the stage for a ‘sing song’ with the audience, which saw a mishap of costumes, character story timelines, and all manner of things. There were a few elements of the production that screamed old school such as setting backdrops lowering in the middle of one scene in preparation for the next, and actors moving furniture around the stage in between shots themselves.
At times it felt a bit too rustic for a production that’s been on the road for quite some time now. For instance – screen backdrop bashing its way into a phone box not once, but twice. Members of the company were dressed as though they’ve just been plucked straight from the street rather than their hair and costumes suiting the style of the 60s. The company’s dancing in the Cavern didn’t emulate the crazy ‘Beatles mania’, but careful and identical steps to each other vaguely representing something from the 60s, all in very careful rows with only one or two members breaking this. These scenes felt corny, if I’m honest, and a bit like a school production.
The members of the Beatles weren’t styled as the part at all and looked absolutely nothing like the iconic band we’ve all seen a million pictures of – apart from one band member who annoyingly looked and sounded very much like George Harrison and yet had been cast as Paul McCartney.
The relationship between Cilla and her Bobby, played by Alexander Patmore was beautiful, and I really enjoyed Alexander’s portrayal of the lovable Liverpudlian lad who just worships his Cilla was excellent, and I really warmed to and rooted for his character. I also really enjoyed the portrayal of Brian Epstein by Andrew Lancel (although I was left very confused over the pronunciation of his surname as I have always heard it pronounced Epstine rather than Epsteen). Brian Epstein is a very interesting character that really could do with a whole show of his own to explain his story. It did feel like the script struggle to contain such a large story in the realms of a side character, and as a result it felt a bit ‘smoothed over’. Andrew’s performance was incredibly moving, especially as he starts to lose his clients and have to contemplate sculpting a life outside of The Beatles and Cilla.
All in all, it feels as though this was mostly a very strong principle cast that was let down by the production. Their performances didn’t seem tired, but the production did. The main trio really carried the show along and dragged it through some awkward staging and sound balancing issues.
Nevertheless, this is definitely a crowd pleaser. I personally expected more, but as a huge fan of the Beatles and of Cilla herself, I’m bound to be overly critical of their portrayal. Thankfully it’s easy watching, easy to follow, and will largely just wash over you. The majority of audience around me, however, didn’t seem to be ruffled by the same issues as they were keen to jump to their feet during the finale to join in dancing, singing and clapping.
Reviewed by Rosie Bambury
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