It must have seemed like a gift: open access to the back catalogue of one of this country’s most successful pop and stage singers. For any writer and producer – let alone Jon Conway, who’s made a speciality out of jukebox musicals – it must have seemed like Christmas had come early. So why does All the Fun of the Fair, a show woven around the songs of David Essex, feel like a missed opportunity?
Maybe it’s the ropey old plot, in which an ageing fairground run by an ageing widower faces predictable hostility from the local thugs, while young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks are driven to desperate measures and ultimate tragedy. Maybe it’s the cliché-ridden dialogue and characters who ramble for at least half an hour longer than necessary in pursuit of a story to match the quality of the songs. Or maybe it’s the criminal use of a pre-recorded soundtrack instead of a live band, which robs the wonderful music of much of its life and passion.
Certainly, the surprisingly sparse Derngate audience was split down the middle over it, with die-hard Essex fans leaping to their feet alongside oddly mute customers steadfastly refusing even to applaud. Among the actors, there’s a mixed bag. Essex himself, playing the grey-haired, old-fashioned fair boss Levi, turns in a typically relaxed, comfortable performance, looking as if nothing – not even an enforced 20-minute emergency evacuation of the venue – can put him off his stride.
In his professional debut, Paul-Ryan Carberry is volatile, angst-ridden and testosterone-fuelled as his wilful son Jack, while Tanya Robb and Emma Thornett struggle with under-written and two-dimensional characters to provide an unfortunately unbelievable love triangle for the tormented youngster. The big start and supposedly poignant finish are both given to Louise English as Gypsy Rosa, whose rendition of “A Winter’s Tale” is clearly intended to be as moving as Blood Brothers but – thanks to some wavering pitching and a little comedy snow – doesn’t quite bring a tear to the eye. While there’s much to enjoy, including an evocative fairground set from Colin Richmond and that terrific Essex back catalogue, this is essentially a show for the fans. And there’s little doubt that they just love it.