As he approaches his 65th birthday, David Essex carries the stage presence of a man half his age. But Essex’s expansive music career and adoring legion of female fans aren’t enough to carry All the Fun of the Fair to theatrical glory.
Some genuine glimmers of pathos manage to seep through the script’s clichés - and the cast certainly seem to be having a ball – but the hotchpotch of musical numbers and cringe-inducing gags cannot be disguised by any degree of extravagance and pomp.
Essex stars as Levi, a bereaved but aspirant fairground owner in the 1970s (a decade of dominance for Essex’s pop career), attempting to control his swaggering son Jack Rob Compton whilst batting off the attentions of old flame Rosa Louise English. Based on the novel by Jon Conway, the plot takes a pertinent contextual turn as profits at the fair drop and Jack falls in love with a girl from outside the travelling community.
Louise English is impressive as fortune teller Rosa, with a voice and an energy which naturally challenges the younger cast members. Rosa’s effortless Irish charm makes her a powerful female lead alongside Essex’s omnipresent actor-come-composer role.
Unfortunately the female cast members have little opportunity to exercise any of their talents; the characters function merely as puppets of their overbearing fathers and disloyal lovers. The puppeteering of women takes an ironic turn in Act II when Levi leads the cast through a song in which they become his own personal on-stage dolls.
And that’s exactly what Essex fans come to see: a revival of his infectious musical hits, from “A Winter’s Tale” to “Rock On” (sadly wholly swallowed by Act I) and his pantomime camaraderie. Essex seems positively gleeful when referring back to the “long, dark, curly hair” he once had before his thinning silver whiskers took centre-stage.
But the unashamedly kitsch scenery, which sometimes seem to engulf the Lyceum’s proscenium arch, and outlandish props, including levitating carousels and a motorbike which floats above the stalls, feel like compensation for some rather lacklustre individual vocals and trite song lyrics.
Despite Essex’s contagious charm, it turns out that the fair isn’t all that fun after all.