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Review Round-up: Did Davies Get Critics Dancing?

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Come Dancing, the long-planned new musical written by former Kinks singer-songwriter Ray Davies, received its world premiere at east London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East last week (24 September 2008, previews from 13 September), where it runs for a limited season to 25 October 2008, ahead of a possible West End transfer (See News, 16 Jul 2008).

The new musical takes its title from The Kinks\' 1983 song of the same name. However, Come Dancing, which is set in the Ilford Palais in the 1950s, is not a compilation of the band’s hits. It features new music and lyrics specially written for it by Davies, who has also conceived the story and co-written the book with Paul Sirett, with additional material by Terry Johnson.

Come Dancing is directed by Theatre Royal Stratford East artistic director Kerry Michael, who also directed reggae musical The Harder They Come, which was recently seen in the West End (See 1st Night Photos, 10 Jun 2008). Davies stars alongside Alasdair Harvey, Anthony Flaum, Bradley Clarkson, Delroy Atkinson, Gemma Salter, Katey Munroe, Katherine James, Martin George, Samantha Hughes, Stephen Lloyd and Wendy Mae Brown.

First night critical reaction was warm if not exultant. The “lovely little show” was “pleasant rather than electrifying”, but nonetheless had most critics appreciating its truthfulness of period and setting. Although some felt Davies revealed himself as “no natural actor”, some “wonderfully judged central performances” from the likes of Gemma Salter and Alasdair Harvey got most critics’ feet tapping, even if they weren’t quite dancing in the aisles.

  • Roger Foss on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “You can almost smell the cheap fags, warm beer, Brylcreem and cheap scent. The boys in their Burton suits and the girls sipping Babycham and dolled up like Doris Day (or a perhaps Diana Dors if they were a bit common), all look as if they’ve just landed from the Fifties section of retro heaven. And the ensemble company do well to capture the hopes and fears of a community undergoing change, when it wasn’t just about switching from big band music to rock ‘n’ roll at the Palais but also aspiring to a better life in a new town like Stevenage … Some characters seem underdeveloped … But there’s something quite charming – and spooky – about the way that Davies and the cast seem to channel the long-dead era of the Palais de Dance.”
    • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars) – “Davies, who has written the story, book, music and lyrics, also stars as the narrator, and there are times when this is too much of a good thing. Inserting himself in the action often slows it down, and though the show gathers momentum in the second half, too much of the evening is pleasant rather than electrifying. The show and Kerry Michael\'s production are very good at capturing period, as are the songs, including one witty little ditty that is an unlikely paean to the wonders of new towns, and Stevenage in particular. It\'s a lovely little show delivered with verve by the excellent cast, but it is not theatrical rock\'n\'roll.”
    • Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) – “The characterisation is thin, the dialogue, co-written with Paul Sirett, often mawkish. Disappointing, too, are the songs — all original, except for a couple of nods to the Kinks’ back catalogue and the recurring motif of the 1982 title number. Davies’s score encompasses the syrupy romanticism of dance-hall bands as well as the heat of burgeoning rock’n’roll and r&b. But his lyrics are often agonisingly contrived, and his tunes are forgettable. Michael’s staging, though, has energy and panache bursting with primary colour … Davies’s delivery suggests he’s no natural actor. But he’s surrounded by plenty who are, and they ensure that despite the musical’s weaknesses, the evening goes with a swing … Their efforts almost get you on your feet; but it’s a shame Davies didn’t give them a stronger tale to tell. ”
    • Tim Walker in the Independent – “While it\'s nice to find that Come Dancing isn\'t just another jukebox musical, there are moments during Act One when you wish that a Terry would turn up to take Julie\'s arm and allow Ray to sing a chorus or two of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, such is the scarcity of truly toe-tapping numbers … It\'s a night that will, inevitably, lead to both laughter and tears. Director Kerry Michael\'s staging is rarely imaginative, though he does place some audience members at tables onstage where, before the show begins, they mingle with dancehall veterans and the cast\'s stage school types, all mugging furiously beneath their teddy-boy tailoring. There are three wonderfully judged central performances from Julie (a delightful but defiant Gemma Salter), Hamilton (Delroy Atkinson) and ‘Uncle’ Frankie, pitched between suave and seedy by an assured Alasdair Harvey … Unlike Frankie, Davies is no natural song and dance man but he is playing a version of himself, outside of the action, so it seems not to matter. ”
    • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “It’s his characters who really bring the story to life, turning it into a sort of Absolute Beginners at the Ilford Palais. There are golden-hearted cockneys galore: honest-to-goodness ma and pa, three feisty sisters and the variously dedicated followers of fashion who packed the Palais on a Saturday night, supervised by the club’s cheesy MC … Director Kerry Michael hasn’t always found the most original expression for all of this, but he does go a long way to catching the atmosphere of the glitter ball Palais. There are likeable performances, too, most notably Gemma Salter as the tragic sister and Delroy Atkinson as the sweet, well mannered Jamaican. Meanwhile, Davies (sporting a disconcertingly patchy thatch of hair) sings many of his own tunes. In his role of the narrator he has the advantage of speaking from the heart and the disadvantage of sounding flat as a pancake. With professional attention to hair and voice, he might really get you going. ”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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