“We need to make some changes,” shouts angry teenager Jack (Paul-Ryan Carberry) at his fairground owner father Levi (David Essex) during the first act. It’s a phrase that someone should have blurted out during the writing and rehearsal process of this limp and leaden back-catalogue musical, that celebrates the hits of Essex, all wrapped up in a silly story of fairground travellers.
A game cast work hard, but with material this thin, they face an impossible task of Herculean proportions.
England, 1978. Levi’s been running his fairground for years, mourning the death of his wife, and keeping an eye on his troubled teenage son, Jack. Fortune teller Rosa (Louise English) predicts stormy times ahead, as the merry band of carnival folk try to keep their fairground going in a changing Britain. Jack’s romance with Rosa’s daughter Mary (Emma Thornett) is also threatened by the arrival of flighty Alice (understudy Lara Denning) and her violent, aggressive father Harvey (David Burrows).
Whereas shows like Mamma Mia! ingeniously sneak established pop hits into a new story, this feels like a trawl through the bargain bin. Quite simply, it doesn’t have enough hit tunes to justify a sing-along night out. And the story and production are so problematic, I started to feel sorry for some of the (clearly very) talented performers.
Jon Conway’s book is so risible; full of hackneyed cliché, and the sort of flat gags that were last seen in 1970s sitcoms, that it totally fails to establish character, develop a plot properly, or find any sort of narrative arc.
Nikolai Foster’s direction is bewilderingly clumsy and chaotic. Unsure of tone or mood, the show struggles to find its feet, and is a confusing mess of characters, sub-plots, and loose ends. Colin Richmond’s set restricts the possibilities, never suggesting the bustling action of a lively fairground. And the absence of any choreography leaves up tempo numbers struggling to take off.
The songs are of varying quality, but everything a fan has come to hear is present and correct. “Rock On,” “Gonna Make You A Star,” (stripped of its wry, satirical slant) and “Hold Me Close” are all faithfully rendered. Ambiguously noted in the programme, the lack of any live band reduces everything to a bland, homogenised sound. Does a veteran performer like Essex really want to be singing along to a backing track?
Fortunately, some performances are worth shouting about. Denning’s Alice and Thornett’s Mary are both well-defined, and nicely sung. Stefan Butler neatly scene steals as fairground simpleton Jonny. And Salford-born Carberry shows genuine promise and star quality in his professional debut. Singing and acting everyone else off the stage, he manages to make a real impact, and certainly has a bright future ahead of him.
I think All The Fun Of The Fair is a poor offering all round, but, hey, what do I know? A veteran audience adored being in the presence of a 70s pop legend, and rewarded the evening with a standing ovation on the night I attended.
Rock on, indeed.