How do you condense the rise to fame of one of Britain’s best-loved stars into a two-hour show? Just ask Bill Kenwright.
When Cilla Black died suddenly in 2015 a musical adaptation of the successful television miniseries about her life was already in the making and she had given it her full blessing.
You have to think Cilla would be nothing but glowing about this thoughtful and hugely entertaining production.
Kara Lily Hayworth is quite simply magnificent as Cilla, mastering the characterisation of her singing and spoken voice and her quirky mannerisms.
Much of Cilla’s mainstream success lay in her charm and innocence; she was an ordinary girl from Liverpool with an extraordinary talent. The story is so very loyal to this - portraying her early life in a flat above a salon with real warmth; much of which relies on great performances from Neil Macdonald and Pauline Fleming as her wonderfully unsophisticated parents.
Cilla’s audiences warmed to her immediately and here too it feels like you’re on her journey with her, from the lows of her first failed single to her euphoric rise to the top of the charts, from nervy Priscilla White to superstar Cilla Black.
Andrew Lancel gives a thoughtful portrayal of Cilla’s manager Brian Epstein, who she famously had to share with The Beatles, and the production weaves in his tragic story with great effect.
The production strikes the balance between being loyal to reality and condensing Cilla's story quite beautifully. Cilla really did sing her first audition to Epstein out of key, she really didn't like America and her relationship with Bobby (Carl Au) wasn’t exactly plain sailing.
Au is excellent as the unflinchingly loyal love of Cilla’s life, charmingly portraying Bobby’s determined and ultimately successful battle for the young star’s attention.
The production weaves Cilla’s music into the story alongside a number of 60s hits, most notably from her contemporaries The Beatles, who ultimately discovered her. At times it feels a little formulaic in the first act with one short performance scene after another, predictably followed by a section of dialogue. But Hayworth’s rendition of Cilla’s biggest hit, Anyone Who Had a Heart, is simply marvellous and the second act is much better at letting the songs tell the story.
Seamless set changes and musical interludes mean the pace never drops, but plenty of time is given amid the frenzy of 29 numbers (18 of which feature Cilla!) to tell a story with real heart.
Kenwright's production is no mindless trawl through Cilla's hits with some action to keep you occupied, it's a story with integrity and depth.
The only sad thing about this triumphant show is that Cilla, having given it her blessing, will never get to see it.
Plays at the New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday.
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