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Review Round-up: Fun of the Fair 'Worth a Spin'?

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David Essex musical All the Fun of the Fair opened at the Garrick Theatre last week, with a cast led by the legendary pop crooner himself.

Set against the backdrop of a travelling funfair and named after his top-selling 1975 album, the show, which features many of Essex's best-known hits, tells the story of widower and funfair owner Levi Lee (Essex), who’s coming to terms with the loss of his wife and battling the attentions of a newly-divorced woman. He’s also struggling to deal with his rebellious teenage son’s tangled love life, and the gloomy predictions of a gypsy fortune-teller.

Essex is joined in the principal cast by Christopher Timothy (best known from TV’s All Creatures Great and Small and Doctors), Louise English (Me and My Girl, Annie, Oliver!, Hello, Dolly!), Nicola Brazil (Hairspray, Grease, Wicked) and in the leading role as Levi’s son, Michael Pickering (Wicked, High School Musical).

  • Michael Coveney in Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “As an excuse for a musical based on one of his albums, David Essex hasn’t aimed all that high … But in its own honest, rather stilted way, the show has a beguiling melodramatic charm, and Essex as Levi Lee, the boss in a pork pie hat and tightly packed jeans, has several poignant moments … The Essex voice sounds these days as if coming strained through a tea towel, but with its emphatically Cockney vowels, parched timbre and casual inflections, it was always a fairly distinctive pop instrument … The songs are less wittily strung together than they are in Mamma Mia!, and the fairground setting isn’t as organic a design feature as it is Love Never Dies, but the stomping simplicity of 'Hold Me Close,' for instance, is well mobilized by the cast … Rock on, but strictly for fans.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Which of the two fairground owners currently on show in West End musical is the more appealing? It’s a closer-run thing than you might think, because the driving force behind the fun palace in … Love Never Dies is the Phantom ... But my vote is still for David Essex’s Levi Lee … This is still basically a sentimental, soft-centred show … But it’s hard to resist the result. If Essex’s book creaks, his songs … do come across tunefully enough. True the lyrics are almost as bad as Abba’s in Mamma Mia! … And the music has none of the soaring sophistication of Love Never Dies. But you often feel like humming harmlessly along. That’s something, isn’t it?”
  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (two stars) - “Not much fun and only passably fair, this fairground musical based on the back catalogue of David Essex promises the excitement of a night on the dodgems, but never delivers more than a gentle spin in the teacups … I sustained the faint hope that we might actually see the Wall of Death on a West End stage, but this faded quickly in an evening that races along to nowhere with bland, blinkered efficiency … The show constantly sends out a mixed message as to what the fair really represents (thrills or homeliness), and although Essex holds the stage with a grizzled twinkliness, the evening's main claim to fame is its outstanding display of cosmetic dentistry and what will hopefully be the final sighting on a British stage of a character straight from the heartwarming Sir John Mills school of village idiots.”
  • Paul Callan in the Daily Express (four stars) - “Not quite the rocking luminary of the Seventies we remember but he still has that roguish appeal and can belt out such memorable numbers as 'Hold Me Close' and my old favourite 'Silver Dream Machine' … Basically the story-line is a slender framework for 23 of Essex’s best songs but, as jukebox musicals go, it has some dramatic and edgy moments … Essex still has that great, gravelly voice and plays the old-time boss with smooth style. Nicola Brazil as Alice and Susan Hallam-Wright as Mary both possess quite lyrical voices and their duet 'He Noticed Me' is sweetly moving. Michael Pickering is a powerfully voiced Jack, particularly in his solo Lamplight, and Tim Newman as Slow Jonny was highly comical, apart from his 'Ooooh Betty' Michael Crawford voice. Director David Gilmore keeps the energy moving along and Ian Westbrook’s set catches perfectly the faded charm of old fairgrounds. And I wasn’t the only critic who wanted to jump on the stage and drive a Dodgem.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “Watching this modest show, I was amazed at just how many of Essex’s catchy songs - 'Gonna Make You a Star', 'Hold Me Close', 'A Winter’s Tale' and 'Lamplight' - had wormed their way into my consciousness, and how good it was to hear them again … The plot line may be predictable, the jokes not quite as funny as one would wish, but there are moments when it becomes genuinely touching, and it is a pleasure to watch a West End production that puts its faith in its performers rather than hi-tech special effects … This is a long way from being a great musical but with its mixture of seedy charm and sudden moments of menace and emotional pain, All the Fun of the Fair is well worth a spin.”
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