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Cilla the musical is epic theatre

Tre Ventour saw Cilla Black the Musical at Royal and Derngate, Northampton…

Liverpool in the 1960s. Everyone had a story about Cilla Black. You couldn’t walk into any club without hearing a story or two. Mention Liverpool and music in the same sentence, and most will think of The Beatles. They are linked to that place and era in the same fashion as Nixon is linked to Watergate. But The Beatles were just one of many musical sensations to derive from Merseyside. They were a mere product of a thriving musical scene that would become known as Mersey Sound.

Having grown up in the noughties, Cilla Black was before my time. However, in 2014 the BBC showed a miniseries called Cilla (which I enjoyed immensely) with Sheridan Smith (Gavin & Stacey) in the lead role. Here, was my first introduction to Cilla Black. I began to listen to some of her music and I liked it. Cilla the Musical is essentially musical theatre at its best, a biography of Cilla Black, performed by a wonderful cast. The production starts in Liverpool but branches out into London and New York as well. We are witness to her rise to fame – from her amateur appearances in Scouser clubs with her friends to her relationships with Bobby Willis and Brian Epstein to the impact her lifestyle has on those around her. Fame comes at a price and Cilla the Musical takes us through it.

Cast of Cilla The Musical - Liverpool Empire - Photo By Matt Martin (004)

Born Priscilla White, this musical tells us of her rise to stardom, starting with her humble typist role at British something or other. Scott Alder’s musical direction not only uses Cilla’s songs well, but the songs of 60s hits from the likes of The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The music was really something special and hearing it loud and on exhibition in the Derngate auditorium just made it that much more enthralling.

Having done some research on Cilla, it seems Hayworth is very much in her stride. The Cilla on stage is a down to earth woman of working-class origins. She doesn’t forget where she comes from, even after the execs in suits at the recording studio want her to sound less Liverpudlian, as if having a regional accent is something to be ashamed of. There are many subtle jabs at class like this throughout the play. Implying that the way we talk somehow has a say in how educated we are.

L-R Christopher Weeks, Alex Harford, Jay Osbourne, Gemma Brodrick-Bower (Pauline) - Cilla The Musical - Liverpool Empire - Photo By Matt Martin (134)

And Cilla wouldn’t be Cilla without her husband Bobby. Carl Au delivers a wonderful performance as her devoted man. The way he sings is a bit like early Ed Sheeran but actually good. Not good, great. He sings like a siren, luring you in with each note. And when he’s not singing, he owns every scene he’s in – full of emotion, melancholy, and joy (when necessary). Honestly, Au stole the show from everyone.

The band is fantastic. I liked how they opened with the only Beatles song I like, “Twist and Shout.” I stand by my view that The Beatles are overrated, despite this band playing their songs rather too well. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, another one of their songs, was played too.   It highlighted the tenor and the temper of the times and how nothing lasts forever. It ended The Beatles’ run of being relevant and also the life of their manager Brian Epstein (Andrew Lancel), who they shared with Cilla and numerous other artists. “He likes the nasty boys who beat him up.” Lancel gives a great performance, tugging on the heartstrings. He’s a deeply flawed man who is determined to mask his depression by throwing himself into his work. You can see it’s not working and you can’t help but feel badly for him.

Kara Lily Hayworth (Cilla) - Cilla The Musical - Liverpool Empire - Photo By Matt Martin (008)

Lighting and sound are exquisite. The narrative is strong; the vocals and music just add to what is an almost-perfect show. Hair and costume articulate a nostalgia that even those who didn’t grow up in the era will have a longing for. I enjoyed the sets as well. Though set in the 1970s, it reminded me of John Carney’s Sing Street. But it also gave me a feel for Blood Brothers too, another Merseyside-set musical.  

My one criticism is that it’s about fifteen minutes too long. “Which fifteen minutes should be cut?” you ask. I reply “the fifteen minutes you don’t need.” Dotted around, there are bits of filler that can be scrapped. Nonetheless, Cilla the Musical contradicts the musical theatre stereotypes of being style over substance. The show is big, grand and epic. That’s musical theatre. It’s the perfect balance of songs and narrative, making it an enjoyable evening out for all the family. Great job.

Cilla is at Royal & Derngate until Saturday

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