Written and Composed by Ray Davies
Co-Writer – Paul Sirett
Directed by Kerry Michael
Music and lyrics by Ray Davies
Choreographer – Omar Okai
Theatre Royal Stratford East
13 September – 25 October, 2008
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This semi-autobiographical musical is the third by consummate songwriter and former Kinks front-man, Ray Davies. Come Dancing, named after a popular Kinks song of the same name is a memory piece centring on then ten year old Davies’ recollections of stories told to him about regular Saturday night outings made by his parents and older sisters to popular local dance hall Ilford Palais. One of his older sisters had met her husband at the Palais, while the other, who had been a victim of polio for two years prior, attends her first dance on the occasion of her eighteenth birthday as the show begins.
There are some fine moments in Come Dancing and there is no doubt that Davies is a songwriter to be reckoned with, particularly as his numbers with the Kinks often tended towards the narrative: ‘Lola,’ ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ ‘Tired of Waiting,’ the latter of which, along with the show’s title song another Kinks favourite, is included in this show. Davis himself inadvertently generates the most electrifying moments of the performance during his moments at the microphone in his role as narrator, guitar in hand when he sings some of the hits he once performed with his seminal sixties (and seventies) rock band The Kinks.
That being said however, there are some fine new numbers in this show and there are other shining performances in this production as well, most notably, that of initially benign, perpetually corny bandleader Frankie, as played by Alasdair Harvey, who enacts the cryptic changes in character his role requires of him very convincingly, providing laughs at the outset and sneers by his concluding moments. One woman sensation Wendy Mae Brown as Rita, an R and B singer supreme and feisty voice of the future, as it pertains to the upcoming crossing over of music formerly viewed as ‘black’ (or coloured at that time) onto a wider listening audience which would include countless white teens is also wonderful. Brown is a virtual tour de force of song and hers is definitely a voice to search out and appreciate, be she appearing as part of a show or solo. Samantha Hughes also makes a fine job of it in her role as Julie’s former songstress mother Annie. Hughes is also very naturalistic during her pre-show moments of audience interaction too. Marcus Ellard as Tosher, Anthony Flaum as Basil and Stephen Lloyd as Sid together form a trio of would be rock n rollers severely and hilariously lacking in originality. Some of their numbers in which Ellard expertly apes Elvis ‘the pelvis’ gyrations provide some of the show’s heartiest laughs. Delroy Atkinson also gives a finely tuned performance as Annie’s youngest daughter Julie’s Jamaican saxophonist love interest Hamilton, though their age difference makes the match seem even more unlikely than their racial differences invariably would have at the time. But to get to the main character this show’s storyline revolves around, Gemma Salter is in simply marvellous musical theatre voice as Julie, and exhibits an appropriate blend of fragility and determination in the role. However, some rather implausible angles in the storyline in relation to Julie make some of Salter actions as that pivotal role seem somewhat unfeasible, especially given the fact that she is meant to have recently spent two years in bed recovering from polio, so it would seem some well thought out rewriting might be in order. For example, it just doesn’t seem realistic to have Julie stepping out to a nightclub in an unspecified neighbourhood to visit her love interest, Hamilton, any more than it does for her to be wearing a thin strapless dress when her two visibly heartier older sisters are wearing sweaters, considering her delicate condition. To a discerning eye, little things like the latter can make a difference, though the former definitely needs to be addressed to enable credibility.
That said however, some of Davies’ fondest familial memories are at the heart of this production and his canny pen has taken note of some then pertinent social issues to stirring and sometimes comic effect, such as Bradley Clarkson as Arthur and Katey Monroe as Julie’s older sister Rose doing nice turns singing about the new life they’re going to have together in the ‘new town’ of Stevenage, (south of Hitching Harts, or is it Hearts?. Stevenage like Essex, Cumbria, Hampshire, Hartford and Hertfordshire is ‘the place to be.’ The notion of new lives in new towns in England is also one that was seized upon in novels, and subsequently, films of the social realist era in Britain, circa late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s, such as Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Kind of Loving. Judging by the number of smiles and the amount of laughter in the audience during that scene, Davies assessment of 50’s style upward mobility was spot on. Gemma Salter’s lovely rendition of Davies’ ballad ‘There Must Be More Out There’ as Julie, addresses the opposite view, in terms of love and life. Davies’ is also tops in the sentimental stakes in terms of songs, with his ‘We Might Never Be This Way Again,’ which presents an ideal, which seems to be one that is invariably fleeting in the moment, for, as the saying goes, only hindsight is truly, twenty-twenty.
Some of the show’s dialogue also raises topical issues in scenes dealing with teen violence, racism and other harsh realities, such as the ‘dirty streets and bomb sites,’ Delroy Atkinson, as Hamilton discovers when he arrives in London in search of its proverbial streets paved with gold. Katherine James as the flash, stereotypically big and blonde ‘man-eater’ sister, Brenda is particularly good during the dancing scenes, choreographed by Omar Okai, which feature hand jiving and other formulaic steps of the time. Though, gracefully executed ball room dancing and somewhat tame jiving dominate pre-show scenes during which time the cast interact with the audience as though we were all Saturday night patrons of Ilford Palais. However, a fully functional onstage bar initially lent confusion, as it intermingled hairstyles and clothing from different periods for a time before it became apparent that it was actually, a gimmick, as did the onstage seating that seemed at first to detract from the actor’s efforts onstage. Both of these ideas might work more effectively if it was established from the outset that they are working novelties.
The band, consisting of Glynn Evans on Bass, Musical Director Robert Hyman on Keyboards, Paul Keogh on Guitar, Kevin Oliver Jones on Keyboards, Saxophone, Guitar and Harmonica and Joe Redstone on Drums really know their stuff and switch easily from variety night versions of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ to ‘Sunny Side of the Street’, both reminders that WWII had not long been over at that time. Jo Joelson’s lighting design is unobtrusive in an appropriately lo-tech kind of way, seemingly shifting between light, dark and stark, and James Tebb’s Sound Design for Thames Audio is similarly intentionally granular and restrained.
In terms of history, the Ilford Palais itself had an interesting story to tell. Converted from cinema to dance hall in 1925, when rock n’ roll was born in the ‘50’s, it was still the ‘place to go for a night out,’ featuring as it did, Bill Haley and the Comets, along with many other big bands of that era. None other than Jimmy Savile, who worked for the Palais’ parent company, Mecca during the late ‘50’s became its manager then, and claims to invented DJ-ing there. The video for the popular Kink’s version of the show’s title song ‘Come Dancing’ had also been shot at Ilford Palais. Through all of its incarnations, its final name being Jumping Jacks in 2002, the Palais had stood the test of time and in the process, housed many a memory until its demolition in 2007. Which brings us to our final spins around the dance floor of Davies’ memory inspired imagination. The show’s final moments, which related to the story of the Palais, as written by Davies also proved to be very touching ones, as he stepped up to the mike and told the audience that his older sister, Julie, who had actually had polio in her youth, passed away when she was just nineteen, adding that his song ‘began the night Julie’s ended.’
For all its sentimentalising and stereotypes, Come Dancing is still a show with its heart in the right place, and as such, it offers as buoyant an evening’s entertainment as anything on the musical circuit today.
0208 279 1131; firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved
Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved