Tuesday 16th October 2018 at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
Cilla The Musical is based on Jeff Pope’s ITV mini-series and it’s a love letter from Director Bill Kenwright and creative team to its muse, Cilla Black. As far as biopic musicals go, this work from Pope and Kenwright as a joint force is the most affectionate that I’ve seen in recent years.
Kara Lily Hayworth takes the title role and handles it with great care, bringing to the role both the warmth and the twinkle Black was so well known for. Hayworth is not only compelling to watch as the young Cilla, doing a wonderful job of hitting that distinctive tone of voice and accent without slipping into caricature or parody, but she has the pipes to match, delivering Black’s songs with that tone but with enough originality to make her statement: this is Hayworth’s take on Cilla, not just her studied mimicry or replica of her.
We begin in the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool; The Beatles are on stage and the locals are bopping away with their limited, untrained moves (choreography by Carole Todd). Cilla’s eventual love Bobby Willis (Alexander Patmore) is smitten and intent on being a Jack the lad with gift of the gab, but Cilla and her pals Pat (Billie Hardy) and Pauline (Gemma Brodrick) gently run rings around the poor la.
Both Brodrick and Hardy perfectly portray the fun and energy of youthful friendship, but Brodrick in particular is full of blunt northern charm. Soon enough big time manager Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel) arrives on the scene and Cilla’s journey, as we know, speeds up in the direction of Hit Parade success. Later, Cilla and Bobby will unite, and that pairing gives this production the opportunity to portray the private Cilla as well as the public, with both Hayworth and Patmore giving emotional performances as the relationship hits peaks and troughs.
The music of 60s hits is brought to life by a lively ensemble who most notably take on the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ and of course, there’s the recurring appearance of The Beatles (Ringo – Bill Caple, John Lennon – Michael Hawkins, Paul McCartney – Joe Etherington, George Harrison – Alex Harford) as a major influence on young Cilla’s life. It’s a talented bunch all round.
Designer Gary McCann and Lighting Designer Nick Richings work hand in hand to produce a vast array of settings and atmospheres from the ordinary Merseyside home to the teen-vibe of the Cavern and onwards to the grandeur of The Palladium and New York. Richings’ lighting designs for the sequence at the Palladium in particular are fantastic, creating visuals of Cilla sending light out into the audience, framed in a dramatic semi-circle of sparkling colour – it’s just one example of the ways in which this production celebrates Cilla Black and insists that we see her as an absolute treasure.
Cilla’s dad (Neil MacDonald) is a great source of comedy – a walking vision of the northern put-upon dad who comically gurns at the trying women in his life but has a clear depth of pride about this accomplished daughter. Mother, also known as ‘big Cilla’ and played with real flair by Jayne Ashley, is another comic gem, informing everyone at every given opportunity that she too could have been a singer as she looks with sparkling eyes at the growing success of her talented daughter.
It feels like there’s not quite enough of Cilla’s comic monologues and quick wit on display here sometimes – she’s primarily a softly spoken girl with a growing sense of independence gradually creeping into the characterisation. She’s playful with friends and likeable to the crowds, but the winning smile associated with Cilla the TV personality doesn’t quite arrive in this early part of her life story – perhaps that towering charisma just didn’t flourish in all its glory until later; this early portrayal of Cilla, that sparkling personality is emerging rather than present in its full wattage.
What this sensitive, understated take on her does offer is great warmth and investment in a young girl chasing dreams as well as a young girl navigating love and showbiz simultaneously.
The most winning aspect of this production is the authenticity of the characters and relationships even as the artificial staging and lights accumulate around them. The easy rapport between central characters is a great source of the warmth which pervades both the production and the relationships portrayed within it.
For me the only drawbacks were a few issues with tinny sound quality and the band overpowering Hayworth despite her soaring vocals (hopefully purely an opening night issue) and increasing busyness with set and scene shifts in the second act. Regardless, this is a thoroughly lovely new show with a big voice and a big heart at its centre – catch it if you can.
Cilla The Musical is presented by Bill Kenwright and Laurie Mansfield. It plays at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until October 20th 2018 and you can find tickets here. The production then tours until December 1st 2018 and you can find information and tickets here.