Roll up! Roll up! Roll up for All the Fun of the Fair! Marvel with delight as ringmaster and 1970s heartthrob David Essex transforms fifty-year old women into squealing teenage versions of themselves!
Step inside and meet Levi, a grieving widower who lost his wife to the optimistically titled "Wall of Death" during a freak motorcycle stunt. Meet his new romantic interest, a fortune teller with the power of sight and not enough sense to reveal the finale in the opening scene. Meet her daughter, a fairground Eponine who loses her heart to Jack the Lad, and Jack the Lad, who loses his heart to a city girl.
Melodramatic as it sounds, this is a likeable production, bolstered by Nikolai Foster's keen direction and its star turn. Essex rocks on. As fairground owner Levi, David Essex hooks his audience like bright eyed ducks. He soberly walks the stage, delivering his lines with a patriarchal pride, nailing his hits with subtlety and honesty.
Tales of the fairground have faired relatively well in the theatre these last few years. Whilst Love Never Dies relished the curious oddity and twisted spectacle of the Coney Island boardwalks at their most lurid height, Ian Westbrook's design of dodgems and polished carousel horses is much more grounded in the tradition and reality of life in the travelling community.
The ensemble cannot be faulted. Rob Compton is fantastic as East End lothario, Jack the Lad. His performance is multi-faceted, forging energetic moments of sexual prowess alongside more sincere and heartfelt flashes of tenderness. It's refreshing to hear an aurally pleasant yet spiritually authentic Cock-er-ney accent which doesn't rely on the Artful Dodger for vocal coaching.
And yet, as a contemporary musical, All the Fun of the Fair feels lamentably outdated. This production could have opened on the same night as Blood Brothers. Much of its soundtrack sounds like a dusty karaoke cassette and, whilst the songs are well-performed throughout, Essex's songs lose much of the contextual drama as a consequence of the over-percussive backing tracks. Its sense of humour, too, whilst smirk raising, is more 1970s than a three day week and the characterisation and purpose of several of its characters wilt like candy floss in a rainstorm.
Like a whirl on the waltzers, All the Fun of the Fair loops the loops and has its thrills in pop icon Essex. If only someone could find the accelerate button...