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All the Fun of the Fair

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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As an excuse for a musical based on one of his albums, David Essex hasn’t aimed all that high: a string of old hits, a fairground on the skids, a Jack-the-lad son two-timing the fortune-teller’s daughter with the daughter of a shady entrepreneur, East End “watcher cocks” and lots of coloured lights and cuddly toys.

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 of mock vanity when he admits that the older he gets, the better he was.

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, and it served him well on stage in Godspell and Evita, less so in his own project, Mutiny.

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 on Coney Island in Love Never Dies, but the stomping simplicity of “Hold Me Close,” for instance, is well mobilized by the cast suddenly emerging on a few dodgem cars, and the rabble-rousing “Gonna Make You a Star” serves the double purpose of reintroducing the Wall of Death into the fairground and transforming the twitchy retard on the rifle range.

The Wall of Death was dropped after Levi’s wife had a fatal accident – possibly brought on by his affair with the fortune-teller. And Slow Jonny remains a loser until transformed again at the end when he joins Levi and Jack on their motorbikes for the raucous finale, “Silver Dream Machine.”

Essex’s songs – plus the melodic lamentation “Winter’s Tale” by Tim Rice and Mike Batt – litter the storyline by Jon Conway, the offstage band (with the odd incursion of two acoustic guitarists) is supervised by Olly Ashmore and the whole show is efficiently staged by Grease director David Gilmore and colourfully designed by Ian Westbrook.

Essex’s younger self is winningly played by newcomer Michael Pickering, Slow Jonny by Tim Newman, the two girlfriends by Susan Hallam-Wright and Nicola Brazil, and the Irish gypsy woman given romantic flesh and blood by Louise English. Rock on, but strictly for fans.


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