★★★★

Venue: New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Production Run: Tue 10 - Sat 14 Oct 2017

Performance Reviewed: Tue 10 Oct (Press Night)

Cilla the Musical is curiously titled.

Bar a slightly jarring moment or two in the second act when characters erupt into song outside of the confines of an in-universe stage or recording booth, it’s a show that seems more suited to being called, say, ‘Cilla the Jukebox Biopic’ than anything.

Though that, admittedly, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Adapted from Jeff Pope’s highly popular 2014 three-part TV dramatisation starring Sheridan Smith, Cilla likewise tells the rise to superstardom of the red-headed, big-lunged Liverpudlian. It hits many of the same beats and notes as the TV show, with the added immediacy of theatre working to tremendous effect for the musical moments, even if some of the more dramatic moments come across a little rote by comparison on stage - a strange criticism, given that it all plays out true to life.

Still, it is an enlightening, at-times surprising biopic, particularly for those raised on Cilla as the Queen of 90’s TV with the likes of Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date. Delving into her young life as an aspiring singer turned recording superstar, there’s a real trove of trivia and musical treasures that underline how extraordinary her life and career. Friend of The Beatles, one-time adversary of both Cher and Shirley Bassey, and one of the few true muses of the late, great Brian Epstein. It’s a fascinating, revealing tale, one that doesn’t even need to go anywhere near her similarly successful TV career to tell its tale (this is predominantly Cilla - the Epstein years).

Given the confidence of Pope’s exploration of Cilla’s young life and career trajectory, it’s a shame that the translation from TV to theatre isn’t quite as confident or bombastic as its central figure could allow. It’s a show that does in places dazzle, and is peppered with a whole host of fantastic performances, with some of the musical set pieces and cameos uncannily authentic - see, for instance, faultless incarnations of The Beatles and The Mamas and the Papas, for starters. However, for all of the top-grade ingredients and assets it boasts, at times Cilla feels strangely restrained, even hesitant. So much of the bigger moments and action are confined to the same moving stage, or, even worse, Abbey Road recording booth, that occasionally it’s difficult to not feel frustrated that the ambition and scale seen in sequences such as the London Palladium aren’t more consistently featured.

Understandably, this is a show that narrows its focus. Outside of Cilla (Kara Lily Hayworth), her long-time beau and one-time manager Bobby (Carl Au) and the repressed yet ever-polite Epstein (Andrew Lancel), the remaining supporting characters are painted in mostly broad strokes. ‘Big’ Cilla (Pauline Fleming) and father John (Neil MacDonald) are mostly reduced to comedic support, but they put in spirited turns and provide some good levity throughout. Lancel occasionally threatens to slip into ham as Epstein, those his struggle with his sexuality and later troubles are sensitively depicted. Au, meanwhile, is a brilliant, reliable presence as Bobby, beautifully charting his arc from cocksure upstart to Black’s constant and confidante.

The real star of the show, though, perhaps unsurprisingly, is its leading lady. Following a Nationwide search and a fair share of skepticism, Kara Lily Hayworth steps forward in what surely deserves to be a star-making turn of life-imitating-art-imitating-life proportions. Not only does she channel Black’s distinctive Scouse twang and mannerisms effortlessly, not only is she a likeable, engaging stage actress, but she is also somehow even more of Black’s doppelgänger vocally. Hearing her tear through the likes of such big belters as ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, ‘You’re My World’ and ‘Step Inside Love’ with such complete command and range would be impressive by any measure, but to do so uncannily is just unprecedented. Even Sheridan Smith didn’t come this close. Seriously - you will frequently struggle to believe you are not just listening to a recording of Black in her prime, Hayworth is that good.

Ultimately, Cilla the Musical is a lot better than on paper it has the right to be, and easily one of the more winning Jukebox experiences of recent years. Whilst it isn’t the most daring or exciting of stage adaptations, with a lot of the incredible musical performances confined to the same slices of set design, it is nevertheless an absorbing and revealing exploration into a real life love story and rise to superstardom rolled into one. When it does unshackle itself, it turns into a big, audacious and dazzling stage experience that fans of the 60s in particular will eat up. And, perhaps most importantly, it not only gets its most important ingredient - Cilla herself - right, but it has also stumbled upon one of the theatre finds of recent memory in the process. Much like Black herself, this is loud, soulful, powerful and memorable theatre, with some welcome injections of bright lights and showmanship, and all elevated by an utterly unforgettable and outstanding central performance.

A lorra, lorra thumbs way, way up.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 0844 871 3011​  / Official Website: click

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